Book Review: Falling Off The Map

Falling Off The Map:  Some Lonely Places Of The World, by Pico Iyer

It is little surprise that lonely people are attracted to lonely places, and that we tend to see places through our own state of mind.  The author’s discussion of various places he has visited around the world that strike him as lonely places is made up largely of places I would like to go, and not (interestingly enough) out of places I am very familiar with, with the exception of Argentina.  It is unclear if the author sees these places as lonely simply because he is a lonely traveler–that may be at least part of the case–or whether he is making a judgment that they are lonely places in general regardless of who visits them.  As someone who certainly writes a lot about my own travels [1], I can understand the way in which our own personalities and our own experiences and our own moods shape our judgment of the places that we go to, and it is also true that we go to places (hopefully) that resonate with us, and that inform us about what kind of people we happen to be as well.

This book of about 200 pages begins with a “prefatory note” and a comment on what makes lonely places lonely, and then consists of the author’s travels in various places.  He begins with a trip to North Korea, which sounds like a pretty intriguing place to visit on account of its weirdness, before talking about the confluence of the sweet life and hyperinflation in Argentina, the mournful carnival of isolated Communist Cuba, the sparsely populated and remote Iceland, the hidden kingdom of Bhutan, the rapidly opening Vietenam of the early 1990’s (which is likely a lonely place no more, unless you’re a snake on a train), the genial shadiness of Paraguay that I would like to see for myself, and the remoteness of Australia.  In all of these places the author examines history and geography as the keys to their isolation, pointing out that for a variety of reasons these place are somewhat cut off from the world and adrift in time, which is where the author sees the origins of lonely places.  At times the author’s comments are a bit acerbic but his wit is generally at least somewhat kind.  Best of all, these are places that tend to inspire hipster travel.

There are at least a few reasons why many of these places are lonely places.  A couple of them, for example, are remote settler colonies.  A couple of them are communist havens gone wrong that have failed to recognize the failure of communism and rejoin the rest of the world.  Some of the places have deliberately set their face against the sort of compromises that would be necessary to appeal to tourists, and many of the places seem adrift in past nostalgic periods of glory.  In looking at lonely places, it is possible to better understand what makes people lonely.  It is not merely being alone that makes people lonely, but being adrift, cut off from others, aware that there is something going on that one is not a part of, burdened with dreams and memories that one simply cannot put into practice, filled with longings that are not fulfilled.  Not all places are condemned to be lonely, and it seems likely that Argentina and Vietnam are a lot less lonely than the author lets on since their economies are much better.  This book certainly gives a lonely reader and traveler plenty of food for thought, to be sure.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2010/12/31/the-day-of-small-things-a-travelogue/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/10/27/back-in-the-u-s-s-r/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/10/14/in-mother-russia-you-dont-write-blogs-the-blogs-write-you/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/01/09/the-accidental-traveling-librarian-or-the-material-culture-of-nomads/

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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