Wednesday 12 February 2014

Atlas of Remote Islands

(February 2014)

My decision to join twitter seems to have reaped some unexpectedly rapid and literal dividends. A short tweet dashed off in haste, largely because I’m one of those tedious people who takes far too much pleasure in cheap wordplay, and I now find myself the recipient of three hundred quid’s worth of books courtesy of Waterstones (That’s WATERSTONES, may as well make sure they get their money’s worth).
It’s a fairly eclectic mix of titles, so they’re not all to my taste. This one though definitely is and, following hard on the heels of A Natural History of Dragons, is another absolutely beautiful book. A gazetteer of fifty islands from around the world, featuring gorgeous hand drawn maps of each one accompanied by a page of narrative. I apologise for using such an ugly word, but I’m really not sure how else to describe the accompanying text as each passage is really a very short story about a significant incident concerning the island in question.

That ‘significant’ is entirely relative, as these island range from the famous (Iwo Jima, Easter Island, St Helena) to the infamous (Diego Garcia, Norfolk Island, Pitcairn) to the utterly obscure (Semisopochnoi, Tromelin, Southern Thule). Nonetheless, no matter how ignored or remote Schalansky finds something to say about each one which, given a large number of these ‘significant’ incidents stem from the direct effects of western colonialism, slowly accumulate to form a bitter-sweet discourse on humankind’s capacity for innovation, irrepressibility, blindness, and stupidity.

It’s only a slim volume, and, appropriately enough, sparsely populated in terms of text but there’s so much food for thought here. This is a small, wonderful, enlightening, depressing, and uplifting book. If I’d spent my own money on it I would have been delighted, but getting it for free is even better. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.


  1. On a similar theme.

  2. Thanks for that. I was unaware of that book, but then Eco is another one of the many writers I really should read more of...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. To defend looking pretentious, although Eco was once as au courant as Slavoj Žižek is now, he wrote a few things worth reading which I have read: 'The Name of the Rose', 'Travels in Hyperreality'. He may have written more worth the while, but I have not read them... 'The Book of Legendary Lands' sounds like the sort of thing he'd do well: esoterica.

      I was able to use 'Travels in Hyperreality' in a smart-assed Facebook post about Tokyo Disneyland. A hell of a way to find out how few of your friends are well read (have heard of him). Still, for quickly sketched world building, nobody beats Borges, and nothing beats 'Fictions'.

    3. Well, I've seen the film of The Name of the Rose. Does that count?

      (And really there's no need to defend looking pretentious, to me of all people ;)