If you ever wonder what kind of place “real” books will have in an increasingly electronic world, the Atlas of Remote Islands (Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will) is the perfect example of the power wielded by a physical artifact.
Judith Schalansky grew up in East Germany, only able to imagine travelling to other places by looking at maps. In a piece of wonderful symmetry, this book does the same thing to the reader – you may not live in a Communist country, but you will certainly never travel to the islands described in this book. This unavoidable truth is both lovely and sad – sure, you could really try to make it to Deception Island or Lonely Island or Robinson Crusoe – but you won’t. The most breathtaking example of this fact is a little island in the Antarctic – until the late 1990s, more people had set foot on the moon than on the shores of Peter I Island (it appears to be protected by sheer cliff, all the way around). As used up as our world might seem, these islands remain secretive and immune from us.
This book is a rare gem for many other reasons. For one, it defies genre. It’s obviously an atlas of sorts, and it’s a beautiful piece of art with its illustrated maps and richly designed pages, and it’s almost like a collection of poetry or folklore. Across from each illustration, Schalansky mixes the bare facts (population, square kilometres, which far-off country “owns” the island) with stories that may or may have anything to do with these facts. For the uninhabited Antipodes Island which lies between New Zealand and Antarctica, she writes:
Each of us longs for a doppelgänger who lives on the other side of the earth, upside down, his feet facing ours, held on to the same globe by gravity.
At other times, she takes a less whimsical approach. For Fangataufa, which lies in the middle of the Pacific Island, thousands of kilometres away from anything, these facts are offered:
On 24 August 1968, everything is ready for the big test: the detonation of the first French hydrogen bomb. It is the largest that has ever been exploded, with the force of 2.6 megatonnes – between a hundred and a thousand times more powerful than an atom bomb.
Lastly, in a very islandesque way, this book is a remarkably unique example of self-sufficiency. Schalansky has created this Atlas from scratch – she wrote the text (albeit now translated from German), she illustrated the maps, and designed and even typeset the whole thing herself. As such, the book appears to have been published almost identically across the globe.
This is the kind of book for which reading the text on an e-reader simply wouldn’t do. It’s like your favourite children’s fantasy book come to life (the kind with an inky illustration and a compass on the first page, of course), it’s a little like Lost, and it is like travelling to the moon. I feel more magical just holding the book in my hand, knowing that if I ever wanted to go to Neptunes Bellows or Sewingmachine Needles or the Bay of Oh Dear, these places really do exist, somewhere.