~ Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky ~
Even today, I could spend hours looking at maps – but when I was twelve years old and had the hours to spare, I did. Any kind of map would do: world atlases and road atlases, globes and National Geographic maps, topographical maps, boating maps, flight maps, geological survey maps, weather maps, vegetation maps and species range maps, the maps you might find printed on the endpapers of history books or art books, or scattered among the entries of an encyclopedia.
I soon began drawing my own maps. I practiced the shapes of states, countries (contemporary or historical), and continents until I was able to do a fair job with many of them by memory. I drew maps of imaginary places too. In the cartographic style immortalized by dog-eared Tolkien paperbacks, I carved out coastlines with my pencil, plotted rivers, raised up hills and mountains, and marked out villages and citadels. In pursuit of greater scale and detail, I taped together sheet after sheet of painstakingly drawn maps until they covered my bedroom floor in a sort of visual epic narrative.
Knowing my love of maps, my children got me a copy of Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands for Father’s Day this year and I couldn’t have been more pleased. It’s a beautiful, fascinating book. Schalansky’s avowed aim is to raise the genre of the atlas to the status of literature, and she rather succeeds. Each of the fifty islands included is tastefully illustrated; it’s situation, total area, and population (if applicable) are described; and notable points in its history are plotted on a timeline.
The real pleasure of the book, however, lies in the brief essay-vignettes Schalansky writes for each island, capturing a moment or event of local historical note, often from an oblique or unexpected point of view. Some poetic license is taken, for sure, but it works. Every page is a surprise. However, as Schalansky notes in her delightful introduction, islands may be little hells as well as little heavens, and the grim and diabolical element plays strongly here.
Open the book, hold its covers flat on the table, and within the 180-degree compass of its pages you will visit every conceivable island terrain, from the merest coral atoll at the equator to a scabbed shelf of ancient seabed thrown up above the waves of the circumpolar sea. You will meet adventurers, prisoners, madmen, hermits, pirates, mutineers, scientists, nudists, utopians, explorers, murderers, and self-proclaimed kings.
I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything quite like this book. I detect echoes, perhaps, of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or of Melville’s Mardi, but it is very much its own thing: like an island.