Ten Islands I Have Not Visited
For the first 9 years of her life, Judith Schalansky grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in East Germany. "East Germans," she writes, "could not travel, only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders." Nonetheless, after watching a documentary about the Galapagos Islands at the age of 8, she would spend hours with her head buried in an atlas, voyaging around the world in her imagination. A year later, her country disappeared from the map altogether, when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was re-unified.
Schalanksy's second book, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, was just published in English translation. In it, she illustrates and annotates 50 of the world's most remote islands, moving ocean by ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her introduction describes the attraction of these isolated places:
Many islands lie so far from their mother countries that they no longer fit on the maps of that country. [...] Every connection to the mainland has been lost. There is no mention of the rest of the world.
Of course, she notes, an island is not necessarily remote if it is your home. The people of Easter Island, which is more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent, call their homeland Te Pito Te Henua, which translates as "the navel of the world."
But for explorers, naturalists, pirates, and dreamers, islands exert an irresistable fascination, as Schalansky's miniature histories demonstrate:
In the nineteenth century, seven clans lived in micro-communist harmony under the patriarchal rule of the Scot William Glass on the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. Dr. Ritter, a Berlin dentist tired of civilization and the global economic crisis, set up a retreat on the island of Floreana in the Galapagos in 1929, where he aimed to renounce all that was superfluous, including clothing.
A remote island's very insignificance makes it all the more potent as myth. "The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses," writes Schalansky, but "an island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story."
When it first came out, in German, in 2009, The Atlas of Remote Islands won the German Arts Foundation Prize for the most beautiful book of the year. It is not hard to see why. Each island is shown at the same scale but on its own page, delicately etched onto a blue-gray sea. Next to it lies a short paragraph, which blurs the line between encyclopedic and poetic, recounting geographic fact, origin fables, and excerpts from sailors' diaries in the same breath.
Most of us will never visit these islands, Schalansky seems to be saying, and yet we also already have. The islands of our imagination are more powerful than their reality could ever be.
This slideshow excerpts a mere 10 of Schalansky's 50 islands—if you still need to buy a last-minute stocking stuffer for someone who loves maps, mysteries, and gorgeous design, I can't recommend the book too highly.