How Borders Make and Break Our World - Recommended Reading List by James Crawford

By Canongate

By Canongate

In writing The Edge of the Plain, I wanted to look at borders, and bordering, from all angles – finding the stories of the people who make them, or who cross them, or who are engaged, one way or another, in moving them, or breaking them. One of the joys of researching a book is discovering works – new or old – that you might never have come across otherwise. At the same time, you can also find yourself revisiting favourite books from your own reading past and considering them again with new eyes. All of the remarkable titles on this list, covering both non-fiction and fiction, are concerned with understanding what borders are; or with interrogating how they have come to dominate our segregated world today – and what that may mean for our future.

The Crossing

Cormac McCarthy


One of the books that first fed my interest in borders. I originally read it as a teenager and it has haunted me ever since. 'The Crossing' tells the story Billy Parham, who moves with his family to a ranch on the border between New Mexico and Mexico in the early 1930s. When Billy turns sixteen, a she-wolf, come north from Mexico, begins to attack the family’s cattle. Billy rides out to trap the wolf, and when he finally catches her, and finds that she is pregnant, he resolves not to kill her, but to take her back into Mexico, to set her free. I was fascinated by the power of the border in McCarthy’s book. He writes of it as a portentous, atavistic place, where the fabric of the world grows thin and time drifts out of meaning. When Billy first crosses into Mexico, he sees one of the concrete obelisks erected to mark the international boundary line: ‘in that desert waste it had the look of some monument to a lost expedition’ McCarthy writes. Over the border he finds the land ‘undifferentiated in its terrain from the country they quit yet wholly alien and wholly strange’. The very air around a border is charged; it throbs with significance. Wholly alien and wholly strange. Nothing is different and yet everything is different.

The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

Jason De Leon


Where Cormac McCarthy recalls a lost, wild landscape between the US and Mexico, in this work of academic non-fiction, archaeologist turned anthropologist Jason de Leon has produced a staggeringly-powerful examination of the plight of those attempting to cross the borderline today. In following the trails of ‘migrant trash’ through the Sonoran Desert – and collecting and cataloguing everything from discarded shoes and rucksacks to water bottles – he creates an ‘archaeology of the contemporary’, a real time study of what he calls ‘American immigration history in the making’.

A Moving Border - Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change

Andrea Bagnato, Marco Ferrari, et al.


A beautifully-produced and stunningly-designed account of a four-year project by Milan-based design agency Studio Folder to survey, in real-time, the movement of a melting glacier border between Italy and Austria. In the process, a series of essays are interwoven with the account of the project, to consider the many ways in which seemingly natural borderlines – like the whole Alpine mountain range – have often been co-opted to serve nationalist political agendas. In the course of working on 'The Edge of the Plain' I interviewed Studio Folder’s co-founder Marco Ferrari, and hiked up into the glacial landscape of the Oztal Alps to see, first hand, how climate change is radically changing, and challenging, typical western understandings of borders and of territory.

Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape

Raja Shehadeh

£9.99 £9.49

Shehadeh, a Palestinian writer and lawyer, chronicles with mournful eloquence the physical transformation of a land he has known his whole life. Describing seven journeys made on foot across the hills and ravines of Palestine, taken over the years between 1978 and 2007, this builds into a lyrical and melancholic account of what can happen at the extremes of segregation and bordering. ‘In two and a half decades,’ Shehadeh says, ‘one of the world’s treasures, this biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some parts beyond recognition’. In the end, the dystopian possibility exists that you divide a space so much, that all you have left is the division. As he writes near the end of 'Palestinian Walks', ‘whether we call it Israel or Palestine, this land will become one big concrete maze’.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley

£12.99 £12.34

While I was writing 'The Edge of the Plain' the COVID-19 pandemic began rapidly shutting down the world. And borders – their permeability, their hardness or softness, became constant headline news. As a result, I wanted to explore the interlinked history of borders and quarantine – going from the Black Death up to the present day – and the microscopic border-breaking that occurs whenever bacteria or viruses attempt to breach our bodies’ cell walls. This brought me to Mary Shelley’s 'The Last Man'. Written eight years after her gothic masterpiece 'Frankenstein', Shelley worked on it in tandem with the spread of the first cholera pandemic around the world. Her novel was the first major literary work to contemplate the extinction of humanity by a disease. Dismissed – even ridiculed – by critics on its initial release, it offers rather more potent, and alarming, resonances today. As a plague spreads around the world at the very end of the twenty-first century – killing everyone but Lionel Verney, the ‘last man’ – Shelley details how borders disintegrate in the face of disease, so that ‘the nations are no longer’ and all we are left to care about is the barrier of our own skin and cells: what Shelley calls ‘this wall of flesh’.

Migratory Birds

Mariana Oliver

£11.99 £11.39

A series of beautiful, interlinked essays that are focussed on the myriad forms and possibilities of movement and migration. In this slim book, not a single word is wasted as Oliver explores the many different perspectives of border crossing, from the flights of geese and cranes to the military – and tourist – invasions of Cappadocia throughout history; from the fractured urban landscape, and psyche, of Berlin, to the ‘lost boys and girls’ of Cuba, taken across a border and never allowed to return. A small, perfectly-formed masterpiece.

The Great War and Modern Memory

Paul Fussell


One of the most remarkable books ever written about the First World War. Published in the 1970s, 'The Great War and Modern Memory' is the work of Paul Fussell, an American professor of literature who had served in the infantry in the Second World War. It is not a history of events, a litany of dates and battles, but rather a study of the impact of the conflict and its aftermath on western culture. The modern world, Fussell wrote, was formed as ‘the inevitable construct of a whole series of wars’. Or, as I wanted to explore in 'The Edge of the Plain', as the inevitable construct of a whole series of borders. On the Western Front, the vast trench systems became a grotesque simulacrum of borders, and the most extreme, physical, man-made division of a landscape ever seen in human history.

Mason & Dixon

Thomas Pynchon

£12.99 £12.34

A near 800-page, Henry Fielding-esque account based on the true story of two English astronomer-surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who attempted to inscribe a perfect line of latitude into the landscape for the first time in history, as a way to mark the contested boundary between the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland. In Pynchon’s hands, what their story offers is a vehicle for an extended exploration and critique of the whole American project. In the novel, Pynchon mocks the ‘Geometrickally impossible territory’ handed out by the two British kings to create the rival states, ‘as if in playful refusal to admit that America, in any way, may be serious’. And so Mason and Dixon are really just surveying a line of make-believe. Near the end of the novel, they both come to conclude, mournfully, that the boundary they have drawn is nothing less than ‘a conduit for evil’. In this, Pynchon was foreshadowing the ultimate divisive conflict still to come. Because Mason and Dixon’s line was more than just a boundary between two states. It was also the dividing line between two separate Americas: the one that advocated slavery and the one that opposed it. America today, he says, is still ‘haunted by the edge’.

Exit West: A BBC 2 Between the Covers Book Club Pick - Booker Prize Gems


£9.99 £9.49

In Hamid’s brilliant novel, secret doorways begin to emerge all across a war-torn eastern world, leading directly into affluent western towns and cities from Mykonos to London to San Francisco. As two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, resolve to leave their own violent and disintegrating city through one of these border portals, they are faced with its terrifying duality: ‘drawing close she was struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way it did not reveal what was on the other side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end’. As Hamid shows, it is the nature of borders that they are ‘equally like a beginning and an end’. They are, instantaneously, points of arrival and departure. Exits and entrances. Darkness and light.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin

£9.99 £9.49

In this transcendent work of science fiction, Le Guin explores the blurring of all sorts of boundaries – from territory to gender – on the wintry planet of Gethen. Towards the end of the novel comes a remarkable passage that poses the same overall question I wanted to explore in 'The Edge of the Plain'. ‘How does one hate a country, or love one?’, asks the politician Estraven – exiled because of his mishandling of a border dispute – of the book’s narrator, the off-worlder Genly Ai. ‘I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain ploughland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?’ A border will, however, come to play a tragic role in the denouement of this powerful, thought-provoking story.

The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World

James Crawford

£20.00 £19.00

We are all of us now – in effect – standing on a border. Whether looking in or looking out, we are confronted, as never before, by the scale and extent of global inequality. The lines that separate us have become the ultimate conduits for both hatred and hope. The desire of some to turn away, ‘build that wall’ and ‘end movement’, will only increase the magnetic pull of borders. They have become a kind of litmus test for our world, evidence for the progress, or recession, of all human freedoms: social, political, cultural, economic and artistic. As Norman Mailer put it, ‘One discovers how far one can go only by travelling in a straight line until one is stopped.’ 'The Edge of the Plain' is my journey to those stopping points.

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