Book Review: Atlas Of Remote Islands

Atlas Of Remote Islands:  Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On And Never Will, by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Christine Lo

The subtitle of this book is a bit pessimistic–to be sure, most of us have never been to any of these islands [1], and I certainly have not–since even though the author has never been to the fifty remote islands she talks about in this book, some of them would be worth visiting, and thousands of people live in some of the islands.  It seems odd, given the sort of beauty that even remote and desolate places have, that the author is so certain she will never visit those islands.  One might need a bit of luck, whether good or bad, and some gumption, but even if the islands discussed in this book are off the beaten track, quite a few of them have been notable enough to gain my own attention as a writer [2], although there were some islands here that I had never heard of before, which I found quite remarkable and pleasing as I am always fond of learning about unfamiliar places.  This is the sort of book that a reader would want to read if those goals are shared, especially since the book is a short one at less than 150 pages.

As a reader and writer there is no question that I like islands [3].  After an introduction where the author expresses her view on the politics of cartography (in a section called “Paradise is an island.  So is hell.”), and her frustration at the political assumptions that other people make, most of the book is thankfully about the islands, which is what people are going to be interested in reading about anyway.  The islands are grouped by geographic region, by the ocean that they are in, starting with the Arctic Ocean (Lonely Island, Bear Island, Rudolf Island), then moving on to the Atlantic Ocean (St. Kilda, Ascension Island, Brava, Annobón, St. Helena, Trinidade, Bouvet Island, Tristan da Cunha, and Southern Thule), the Indian Ocean (Saint Paul Island, South Keeling Islands, Possession Island, Diego Garcia, Amsterdam Island, Christmas Island, and Tromelin), the Pacific Ocean (Napuka, Rapa Iti, Robinson Crusoe, Howland Island, Macquarie Island, Fangataufa, Atlasov Island, Taongi Atoll, Norfolk Island, Pukapuka, Antipodes Island, Floreana, Banaba, Campbell Island, Pingelap, Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, Semisopochnoi, Clipperton Atoll, Raoul Island, Socorro Island, Iwo Jima, St. George Island, Tikopia, Pagan, Cocos Island, and Takuu), and the Antarctic Ocean (Laurie Island, Deception Island, Franklin, and Peter I Island).  Each of the islands is discussed in a similar way, with listing of the island’s name, a small inset globe with the location of the island, a note of who claims the island and how many people and how large the island is, a record of the distance between the island and its nearest neighbors, a timeline of its discovery and notable events, a discussion of the island and an account of any particular interesting or sordid things that happened there in history, and then a page showing the island in the blue ocean with topographical details.

Yet although this book is short and has a generally lighthearted tone, the author does manage to make plenty of intriguing implicit points.  For example, many of these islands are remote because they are far from trade routes and offer little that the rest of the world wants.  When the places do draw the interest of the world as a place for surveillance or meteorological purposes, they usually become even more secretive, like Diego Garcia.  Also, the remoteness of these islands tends to make them a desolate prison for people like Napoleon, or a refuge that seems like a prison, like Pitcairn Island is for the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty.  Many of the islands–like Pitcairn Island again–are places of great evil done far from prying eyes, where people are taken advantage of and exploited and where there is little hope of justice for victims that the world has never known, much less forgotten.  For all of the beauty spoken of here, and all the competing claims for scraps of land for imperial glory, all of the islands of uncertain location and topography, there is a profound sense of melancholy in the isolation that drives people to travel to remote places, and to dwell where few people know one’s home even exists.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to Book Review: Atlas Of Remote Islands

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