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by Judith Schalansky



144pp/$28.00/October 2010

Atlas of Remote Islands
Cover by Judith Schalansky

by Steven H Silver

There is something magical about an atlas that helps transport the reader to a distant place, even if the atlas merely shows a small green country with foreign names in a distant land.  Such an atlas captured Judith Schalansky's imagination when she was growing up in the closed society of East Germany during the cold war.  Schalansky went on to study art history and graphic design, but never lost her infatuation with maps and distant places.  The result is Atlas of Remote Islands, a look at fifty extremely remote locations around the world that Schalansky explains capture her imagination, but which she doubts she'll ever visit.  The islands range from the famous, such as Easter Island, to the obscure, such as Fangataufa.

Each island receives a two page spread.  The recto provides a map of the island as rendered by Schalansky, with all maps reproduced at the same scale of 1:250,000 and offering various amount of detail, depending on the size of the island.  On the verso of each entry is the name (and alternative names) for each island, the island's grographic coordinates, distances to other locations, and a very basic timeline, frequently only showing the date of discovery, but occasionally showing more, if the island's history warrants it.

The main part of each entry is made up of Schalansky's comments on the island. While these take many forms, describing them as descriptions of the islands or histories of the islands makes them sound too structured.  They seem, rather, to be musings of the islands.  Her discussion of Macquarie Island includes the almost poetic description of Henry Eld disappearing into a black and white field of penguins, while for Lonely Island, she describes the deserted research station on the Arctic island. Frequently, Schalansky fails to provide context in her discussion of the various islands, instead just creating a nearly haiku-like sense of sparseness that doesn't really explain anything about the island. Oddly, Schalansky's entry on Pitcairn Island is mostly a description of Fletcher Christian's death, as depicted by Marlon Brando in the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty.

The book does have some factual errors, although it is unclear if they are the results of Schalansky's writing or Lo's translation.*  One instance occurs in the entry for Campbell Island, in which the text states that during a transit of Venus, "Venus is already covering half the sun."  Since during a transit, Venus can only appear as a small spot in front of the sun, this should probably read "Venus has already crossed half the sun." The error does lead to questions about how many other errors may exist in the book.

Other remote islands are notable in their lack of inclusion. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Elephant Island off the Antarctica Peninsula, and from which the Shackleton expedition left on their voyage to South Georgia Island (another good candidate for this volume). Unfortunately, the book doesn't indicate how Schalansky selected the fifty islands she decided to discuss.

Atlas of Remote Islands is an excellent concept for a book, and with only fifty entries, Schalansky has left plenty of room for future volumes covering the myriad other remote islands around the world.  Unfortunately, the book's execution, particularly with regard to its discussion of these fifty islands is lacking, causing the reader to want to learn more about the islands. Fortunately, the ready access of the internet allows the reader to massage that desire, frequently with photographs of even some of the most remote locations.

*A reader who has read a European translation of the book reports that this is rendered more accurately, so this would appear to be an issue with the English translation.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

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