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Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited

January 8, 2016 | by

From Pocket Atlas.

There’s a book I’ve returned to again and again, ever since its clementine-orange cover first caught my eye at a museum bookstore: A Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German by Christine Lo. 

The subtitle is Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, but don’t worry: this book isn’t precious. At least, not too precious—despite the somewhat whimsical conceit, the author approaches her idiosyncratic task with seriousness. The book looks serious, until you read that quirky subtitle: it looks like a pocket atlas. But then you open it. And each remote island’s entry—St. Kilda in the Atlantic, the Carolines of Micronesia, the American Pagan—is a prose poem of sorts. Facts sit side-by-side with a kind of highly personal fiction; we are given latitudes and detailed maps, but also lore and speculation. Of the antipodes the author writes, “cattle that are brought here die quickly and quietly in the dun-colored steppes of grass. And the thunderous echo of waves breaking against the hollows of the jagged coastline never ceases.”

It reminded me slightly of Lauren Redniss’s recent study of weather, Thunder and Lightning, and also of Bruce Chatwin, and a little of the fantastical travel journals of past eras, in which writers freely matched personal observations with conscientious fact-finding. But it is not quite like any of these. Indeed, what I like about it (besides its portable size and digestible scale) is its distinct whiff of madness. This is a book that makes no sense, and took a tremendous amount of energy—and yet it exists, and is as a result peculiarly inspiring. The chapters are short enough to make it convenient reading, but be warned: there is nothing comforting about it. It starts landslides of thoughts and emotions. Remember: this is a book about isolation. As Schalansky writes at its start, “Paradise is an island. So is hell.” 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.