Island: How Islands Transform The World, by J. Edward Chamberlin
This is a book that tries to do too much and in doing too much ends up doing too little. Indeed, the reader of this book may be confused about whether the author is trying to write about the importance of islands or is trying to justify certain scientific worldviews (namely evolution, but also continental drift). The author even tries writing about fictional islands, showing a fair amount of breadth but not as much depth as one would hope. To be sure, islands are important when one looks at the world, and islands are certainly important when it comes to serving as vulnerable but cozy home for insular cultures as well as obscure flora and fauna, and it is good to celebrate that. I am not sure that this is the sort of book that would do that task best, though, as the author appears to have other ambitions besides celebrating islands. If you happen to share those ambitions, then this book might be more enjoyable, but for me the author’s obvious ulterior motives were a detraction from my interest in islands themselves for being islands, rather than signifiers for other conflicts and conversations.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into five large chapters. The author begins with an introduction and then discusses islands and storytellers, looking at the way that islands have preserved human cultures in ways that are often looked down by others (insular carrying with it a negative connotation) (1). After that the author looks at islands as something that are to be reached and that requires travel, historically speaking, most of this travel being on the sea (2). Not surprisingly the author talks a lot about the Polynesian islanders and their tales as well as their expert navigation here. The author then discusses the origin of islands, where he talks about the way that islands have not only formed as a result of being cut off from continental land masses by rising seas but also rising from the earth as a result of volcanic action (3). The author then looks at the origin of species, discussing insular flora and fauna and getting a chance to praise Darwin for the disreputable trick of trying to capitalize from the rhetorical and explanatory power of design without recognizing it (4). The book then closes with a discussion of amazing islands in fact and fiction as well as an afterword, notes and acknowledgments, and an index.
One thing that this book gets right is that islands are greatly important. Not only do they house some important human cultures and demonstrate our love of exploration as well as occasionally a sense of isolation, but they have also had a large role in history and literature as well as ecology as well. And if that was all the author was trying to say, this book would have been an easy one to appreciate. That said, the author clearly was interested in islands at least in part because of the reputation that such islands have when it comes from inspiring Darwin’s misguided thesis about creation, and that certainly detracts from my own enjoyment of the book. The author certainly has a genuine interest in islands, and his discussion of stranded and isolated people is certainly deeply interesting, but this book is neither impartial or complete enough to really be a definitive work. If you want to consider this as a set of related lengthy personal essays on the topic of islands, it can be enjoyed on those modest terms so long as the author’s perspective is not bothersome.