Book Review: Atlas of Remote Islands

Travel Books & Movies, Travel Philosophy — By on September 28, 2010 at 3:00 am

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will

by Judith Schalansky

Penguin Books, Available September 28, 2010

RATING: 4 STARS

Judith Schlansky’s psuedo-tome–the product of a lifetime of studying maps, typography, art and design–is a charming romp through 50 of the most remote islands in the world. She divides the islands by ocean, and then each island gets two pages–one for a topographical map and one for a short story–of conquest, disease, famine, funerals, marriages and births–a brief snippet of its history that Schalansky compiled after years of research. The book is largely fact, a digest of geographic coordinates, topographical maps, timelines and historical analysis.

But this book is about so much more than maps.

First of all, it’s beautiful. Designed, written and typeset exclusively by Schalansky (who did actually study these things), the book looks like an old encyclopedia, a romantic version of what a book should be. Its pages alternate between shades of goldenrod, white and cornflower blue, with font I won’t pretend to know but will say, with confidence, is stunning. Each island map looks hand-drawn, and Schalansky has displayed the facts–coordinates, timelines and conquering lands–with artistic intention. Even the pages feel good.

But most impressively, Schalansky has pushed this book beyond its surface subject, whipping together a smart political and social commentary. Schalansky grew up on the Soviet side of a divided Germany, where travel was forbidden and children contextualized their worlds with globes and maps. She loved the graceful topography and geometric shapes, their ability to take her round the world without ever leaving the GDR, yet simultaneously abhorred the idea that political structures could possibly try to constrain something so bold as earth.

“In the end, it is simply about grasping the extent of the earth, orienting it towards the north and being able to gaze down on it like a god. That is how an atlas’s supposedly objective view of the world is presented to us, with a scientific appeal to truth that does not shy away from calling a map of the earth a world map, as if no solar system or universe could exist beyond it.”

The book’s underlying themes wrestle with Schalansky’s anger at political constraints and man’s arrogance, the idea of a constructed truth vs. reality. I mean, the title of the preface is “Paradise is an island. So is hell.” And the book is in constant tension between the ideal of an island as a utopia yet also a bastion for disease, loneliness and isolation, a place of fierce independence but also the site of endless conquest and nonsensical rule. The island gains a personality, a mysterious aura found in Robinson Crusoe and treasure maps. The thing does more to explain LOST than the TV show. She writes:

The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact. That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading..every detail stems from factual sources…however I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books, and i have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.

And finally, Schalansky’s perspective on atlases and geography is absolutely darling, something that never, ever, in a million years of scouring Lonely Planets, would have dawned on me. For example, she calls the geometric that compose a map the “protragonists of the cartographical narrative.” Most of the time, I would find this kind of prose incredibly annoying. But here, it’s charming, fanciful and is part of a near-perfect construction of a book that captures the romance of travel, the very thing that–I suspect–captivated most Lost Girls in the first place.

This is a great coffee table book, perfect for history buffs, dreamers or anyone who sticks pins in their maps and obsessively uses “GTrot” on Facebook. The glossary in the back even includes geography terms in a myriad of foreign languages. It captures the romance of travel, what I suspect captivated most Lost Girls in the first place.

So I suppose what I’m saying is: buy it.

Check out Atlas of Remote Islands at Penguin Books and check out more of Schalansky’s work—in German–here!

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