Best for: People interested in world politics.
In a nutshell: Tim Marshall examines many (though not all) of the flags of nations, as well as flags of political movements and other organizations as a way to examine what these symbols mean to people.
“The people of the nations of Europe have stubbornly resisted becoming one, not because they don’t like each other but because they like themselves.”
Why I chose it: I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Marshall’s examination of how geography influences world politics, so I was excited to see he has other books on somewhat similar topics. Considering what’s going on in the US with the national anthem, NFL, and protests against racial injustice, this seemed especially appropriate.
Can you make flags interesting? If you’re Tim Marshall, you can, and you do. I inhaled this book, finishing it over the course of two days while on vacation (in Portugal, whose flag includes a coat of arms that dates back to the 1100s). It’s not just an explanation of the symbolism of flags (though it is that); it’s a look at how the flags are viewed by those who fall under them, and by those who are outside them.
The book starts out with chapters on the US flag and the UK flag; I learned some new things about my own nation’s flag, and about the flag of my current home nation. It was interesting to be reminded of how the US flag is often burned abroad, and how the flags of both the US and UK have been co-opted at times by far-right nationalist groups that might make other residents of those nations uncomfortable with displaying them.
From these two deep dives into imperial nations, the book shifts to focusing on themes along different types of flags. Mr. Marshall looks at many flags of the EU member nations (and the EU flag itself), the flags in the Middle East, flags that are meant to invoke fear, flags in Asia, flags in Africa, flags in South America, and a smattering of others (including the Jolly Rodger and the Red Cross).
The book is full of some fun facts that you might find useful at a pub quiz or when playing trivial pursuit (1/6 of the world’s flags have Christian symbolism on them!), but it’s also full of interesting observations about what it means to have a flag, and what a flag can mean for a people, or a movement. June is Pride month in the US, and there is discussion of the rainbow flag in this book. While you might not be clear on what each of the six stripes represents (don’t worry, Mr. Marshall will inform you), you know what it means when you see it. That’s powerful.