In the field of geography textbooks on Latin America, Preston James has held a virtual monopoly since his Latin America first appeared in 1942. The current edition (1969) is dated by swiftly moving events, and the publisher indicates no plans for further revision. Yet James remains the standard against which all competitors will be measured. I suspect that most American scholars will conclude that Cole’s book suffers in the comparison. The author, who is British, has teaching and consulting experience in Latin America, but is inclined toward pedagogy rather than original research. Like his text on the Soviet Union, this is a workmanlike compilation of basic information, emphatically statistical, culled almost exclusively from secondary sources.
This revision of Cole’s 1965 text is reorganized to reflect currently fashionable themes and methodology, most particularly the so-called “Quantitative Revolution.” Approximately half the book is devoted to systematic treatment of matters common to most regional geography textbooks, though some are presented in distinctive ways. An introductory discussion of philosophical and methodological issues in geography is followed by chapters on Latin America in a world setting, history (thirteen pages of text), physical conditions and human needs, production, population, transport, organizational aspects (dealing with political systems and land tenure), relationships at the country level (largely statistical manipulations of economic data), and poverty and underdevelopment. The second half is comprised of chapters on the seven largest countries; other countries are relegated to an incomplete bibliography (one and a half pages) of secondary and largely semi-popular sources. A brief conclusion on the future for Latin America surprisingly eschews obligate ritual optimism for an unusually realistic appraisal of Latin America’s chances for satisfactory economic and social development in the near future.
Textbooks may be the most difficult of all works to review fairly, since they are inevitably screened through a filter of highly personalized taste in style and substance. Cole’s book has some virtues. The data are current, as are the issues (the oil crisis of 1973, the rise and fall of Allende). The subtitle accurately reflects both content and purpose. Organization around the central theme of economic development (or underdevelopment) gives a reasonable coherence to the vast array of seemingly disassociated facts. A secondary theme recurring in several contexts apparently reflects the author’s interest in “perception.” From responses to questionnaires we learn, for example, that the British view of Mexico is dominated by sombreros and the Olympic Games, while Mexicans are inclined to see the British in terms of the Queen and the Beatles (pp. 30, 32); or that if Mexicans were to live abroad, France would be the most popular choice (p. 312). The European approach is refreshing, acknowledging Latin America’s considerable involvement with Britain and the continent, and particularly in the mildly critical view of U.S.-Latin American relations, reinforced by anti-American cartoons from Pravda (p. 29).
In other ways the book is less satisfactory. The writing is uninspired. Topic sentences frequently begin with “The data in Column 5 of table 11.8 show that. . . .” (p. 239). Even paragraphs that do not refer to specific tables or figures are numbingly full of numbers. Illustrative materials, which comprise fully one-third of the book, are of necessity dominated by quantitative graphs and tables. Maps are curiously constructed and overgeneralized apparently to convey impressions rather than information; many are so-called “topological” maps, conforming to the statistical geometry of the computer rather than to the art of the cartographer. The pen-and-ink drawings that replace conventional photographs are skillfully rendered (by the author’s father) but the selection may puzzle some readers.
Whatever questions may be raised about the value of this book as a text, it should find a place as a basic reference. Cole has rendered a service in the extraordinary and rather thankless task of marshalling an impressive amount of useful and current information on the basic demographic, economic, and social characteristics of Latin America.