Lost at Sea: On Falling for Atlas of Remote Islands
This week Matt Weinkam shares his unabashed love for Judith Schalansky’s beautiful book Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will and its recent Pocket Atlas reissue.
By Matt Weinkam
I’m in love with a book. Can I say that? There is a book that I love like a person. I think it is intelligent, funny at times, independent in spirit, honest. This book delights me but also challenges me. It takes me new places, teaches me new things. I’m attracted to it, I’ll admit. It is quite beautiful. When I spy it from across the room peeking out from my bookshelf or lying seductively open on my bedside table I feel things. Maybe you have a book like this, a book that glows when you touch it, that you think about when it’s not around, the book that you’d run back into a burning building to save. For me that book is Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will written, designed, and typeset by Judith Schalansky, and translated from German by Christine Lo.
The book is exactly what it says it is: a collection of fifty remote islands from around the globe. For each island Schalansky drew a detailed map, collected information about its location and history and inhabitants, and wrote stories essays prose poems difficult-to-categorize pieces to reveal something of the island’s essence. You are likely familiar with some of the islands already: Easter Island, Iwo Jima, Christmas Island, St Helena where Napoleon was exiled, Howland Island where Amelia Earhart was set to refuel before she disappeared into the Pacific. Others will feel like a discovery. There’s Napuka, also known as Disappointment Islands, where Ferdinand Magellan and his starving crew stopped briefly while circling the globe only to find it devoid of food or fresh water. Norfold Island, site of the most feared penal colony of the British Empire. And Tikopia, where the local inhabitants enforce a strict population limit in order to survive sustainably.
It’s no accident the stories that accompany many of these islands are grim. Schalansky’s introduction is titled “Paradise is an island, but so is hell.” Anyone looking for idyllic descriptions of pristine beaches or exotic plants will be deeply disappointed by this book. “What I found,” Schalansky writes about the research process, “were not models of romantic, alternative ways of living, but islands one might wish had remained undiscovered: unsettlingly barren places whose riches lay in the multitude of terrible events that had befallen them.” A majority of the islands come with descriptions of desolation and disease, horror stories of what humans do to one another and to the earth when no one is looking. The most haunting story to me is of St Kilda, an island off the coast of the UK where two-thirds of newborn babies die within the first week of their lives due to a mysterious illness. “The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty. But these are the words of pious men. The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness remain silent.”
Dark, I know. So why do I love it? Partly for Schalansky’s prose. In just a few hundred words she brings each island to life while also asking big questions about the history of colonialism, the future of climate change, the effects of science and religion, and the assumptions and ideologies that trap those of us on these big islands called continents. Even if the book didn’t contain any images the words alone would make it worth your time.
But the images? The design? It’s no accident Atlas of Remote Islands won a prize for the most beautiful German book—the whole thing is a work of art. The maps of each island are intricate yet clear. The typeface and page layout engage without distracting. And I love how the orange highlights in the text compliment the blue of the ocean in each image. You will spend as much time studying the map of each island as you will spend reading the text that accompanies it. Each detail contains a story. How far is it from the nearest bodies of land? How many people live on the island? What country owns it? What are the names of its mountains and coves and streams and settlements? I’m particularly fond of the miniature globe graphic that accompanies each island. Schalansky places the island in the center of the map so that we view the earth from the point of view of those who live there. Such a simple design choice provides a revolutionary perspective of the planet. It can spark your imagination.
Atlas of Remote Islands could have been just another regular coffee table book: big on pictures, small on ideas. Instead it’s a complex, evocative, insightful, and challenging work of literature and art. It is, in other words, worthy of love. In an introduction to the new paperback edition, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, Schalansky writes, “Now that it is possible to travel right round the globe, the real challenge lies in staying at home and discovering the world from there.” Get a copy of this book. Fall in love with it. Go on an adventure.
Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Midwestern Gothic, Sonora Review, and Covered w/ Fur. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University where he is co-managing editor at Passages North and a founding editor of Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose.