Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World

by Simon Winchester

Hardcover, 2021



Call number



William Collins (2021), 464 pages


The author of The Professor and the Madman and The Perfectionists explores the notion of property-our proprietary relationship with the land-through human history, how it has shaped us and what it will mean for our future. Land-whether meadow or mountainside, desert or peat bog, parkland or pasture, suburb or city-is central to our existence. It quite literally underlies and underpins everything. Employing the keen intellect, insatiable curiosity, and narrative verve that are the foundations of his previous bestselling works, Simon Winchester examines what we human beings are doing-and have done-with the billions of acres that together make up the solid surface of our planet. Land: The Ownership of Everywhere examines in depth how we acquire land, how we steward it, how and why we fight over it, and finally, how we can, and on occasion do, come to share it. Ultimately, Winchester confronts the essential question: who actually owns the world's land-and why does it matter?… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member muddyboy
An interesting study of land and how it has been used and possessed over the years. Heavy emphasis is placed on the effects of conquests on indigenous peoples. across the world. My main problem is that he only focuses areas historically affected by the British Empire. So areas like South America
Show More
and Asia are virtually ignored. Long chapters are spent on tiny islands off the coast of Scotland but entire continents are ignored. If you are a Anglophile you learn a lot from the book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thornton37814
While I expected the book to be written on a popular level rather than an academic level, I expected the author would tackle land in a more traditional historical manner rather than by jumping from one incident to another in various parts of the world. On page 122 of 660 in the Kindle version, the
Show More
author states, "No American, so far as I am aware, ever professed a deep and unsullied affection for the USGS topographical sheets that it is possible to order from government agencies. They are fine enough maps, and they cover the entirety of the nation. But seldom are they bought for the sheer pleasure of ownership, of the ability to pore over them and imagine, or remember, to draw contented admiration at their elegant appearance and scrupulous accuracy." My immediate thought was that he had never met a land-platting genealogist! Many purchased these maps for every location in which their ancestors lived or in which they were working for a client. Nowadays the maps are available online and most use software to plat the deeds so fewer maps are being purchased, but there are still many who prefer to own these maps. I realize the author was making a point about the availablility of Ordnance Survey maps in many places in the UK whereas they needed to be ordered from a single location in the United States, but he overstated his case. Unfortunately he exaggerated points in many places in the book. While I initially planned to purchase a copy of this pre-publication, but I'm glad I decided to read a library copy before purchasing. I do not need another dust catcher, and that's exactly what this book would do on my shelves. Its usefulness is minimal.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MM_Jones
Fascinating look at property rights, who has them and how they were obtained. Also good explanation of how land is measured and if it is truly an unchangeable amount.
LibraryThing member Coutre
Simon Winchester’s new book Land is aptly titled because it is so general in its study of land. The story moves from measuring the size of the earth, to mapping the earth, to differing concepts of land among diverse peoples, to some very odd border situations, to the creation of new land in the
Show More
Netherlands, to the loss of land due to climate change, to the shifting legal status of land in many countries, to “Wilding” efforts, to who owns the most land today, among many other subthemes. Winchester explores shifting laws and attitudes about land in all corners of the globe, mediæval to contemporary.

The book achieves coherence by looking the many historical, social, and political developments via the lens of how it affects land or how land influenced those developments. It is a land-centric view of cultures past and present.

Measuring the planet is one of Winchester’s first topics. Friedrich Wilhelm Georg von Struve spent forty years measuring the size of the earth. He was fortunate when Tsar Nicholas I came to power, who was an engineer by trade before ascending to the throne. Nicholas believed in the project and provided Struve with unlimited financing to obtain the best equipment in the world, and the staff he needed to assist as he traveled across, and measured, the earth. Struve’s measurements proved very accurate—40,008,696 meters compared with NASA’s measurement of 40,007, 017 meters using satellites.

Another aspect of land is borders. The oldest extant official border in the world Andorra’s. A Minnesota border around Angle Inlet (population 123) is an odd border. Access requires driving into Canada, then circling back to re-enter the US from above and enter Angle Inlet. Winchester offers several odd border situations.

The Netherlands gets the prize for most land added by humans to the planet (1.2 million acres). Look up the Zuider Zee works, brainchild of engineer Cornelis Lely, to see how one of the official Wonders of the World provided a major expansion to the nation’s landmass. On the opposite side, the book discusses land being gradually lost due to a rising sea level, with several examples.

Winchester explores land being essentially taken from people in Scotland due to legal changes such as “enclosures” and “clearances,” at the same time when huge amounts of land were being given away to anyone who would work it in the western US. Many of those losing land in Scotland came to the US to seize the opportunity.

The book briefly looks at the largest landowners in the world, and how they use the vast resource. The book illustrates the contrasting property laws among different nations, and how many are experimenting with returning land to nature, in a wide variety of different ways.

The book discusses many other land-related fascinating facts and phenomena—too many to summarize in this review. I wholeheartedly recommend Winchester’s Land story to anyone interested in any aspect of history, as land plays a rôle in so much of it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member waldhaus1
Winchester makes a thoughtful presentation about land ownership and how it varies between cultures and at different times in history. Winchester does his usual job of of telling an interesting story. He has a lot of detail at his fingertips. There is also Lot of history in the presentation as well.
LibraryThing member steve02476
Enjoyable and interesting look at land ownership in different places and times, and especially about the social disruption caused by changes in the systems, and of course also about the iniquities of various systems. Mostly told with a wry sense of humor; but once in a while there’s a bit more
Show More
preachiness than I thought required.
Show Less


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.45 inches


0008359113 / 9780008359119
Page: 0.1506 seconds