Afterthoughts: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

In a Nutshell: Finally, a coffee table book that’s worth its weight in gold. Well written and beautifully presented, Atlas of Remote Islands is a perfect companion for anyone wishing to escape their dreary surroundings to indulge in a spot of remote island-hopping, where myth, oddity and disaster rule supreme. The book is a little on the pricey side, which may put some people off, but if you’re looking for a special bookish treat (for yourself or a special friend) then this may well be the perfect choice.


So I’ve reached the end of my island-hopping journey through Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and it’s time to offer up a few afterthoughts on it. You may remember, if you read my forethoughts, that I was quite taken by the book’s beautiful design, but my biggest fear was whether all of the work that had go into the design was only to disguise poor content. Well, I’ll alleviate any fears of this straight away because the content of the book certainly DOES live up to expectation, matching the quality of book’s presentation, perfectly.

Well crafted narrative
I think Schalansky is a fine writer. I was looking forward to her picking me up and taking me around fifty nondescript islands around this planet Earth, but I’d feared that she’d be like one of these monotone museum guides (you know, the ones you sometimes get lumbered with on museum visits. They’re knowledgeable enough but their delivery is just so yawn). Thankfully, Schalansky isn’t anything like that at all. Her narrative is well crafted and fast moving, and she can certainly a whip up a good story – based on fact, allegedly – and present it in an engaging way.

Brings out a spectrum of emotion
Yep, I was thoroughly entertained by Atlas of Remote Islands. I giggled at the life led by the ‘governor’ and his ‘subject’ on Saint Paul Island (well, until the end of the story at least). I wept at the plight of the poor slaves who were left deserted on the island of Tromelin (seven of them got the last laugh though). I took with a pinch of salt the story of Atlasov Island and how it began life as a mountain in the middle of Lake Kurile in Kamchatka, before the other mountains in the area got jealous of it and forced it to find a new home in the sea. And, I was left shocked and shaken by the islanders of Tikopia and their rather horrifying solution to population growth (apparently the island’s natural resources can sustain 1200, and not a single islander more). So a wide range of subjects and a whole spectrum of emotion shown there, by me (not deep emotion, but emotion all the same) so I think I can safely say that I think there’s a little something in Atlas of Remote Islands for everyone.

Over too quickly
As much as I enjoyed Atlas of Remote Islands I do have two minor complaints about it (if you can really call them complaints). Firstly, I managed to whizz through the book is next to no time. That’s good because it shows I enjoyed the book, but you’d think, given that the Atlas of Remote Islands features FIFTY islands, that there would be plenty to keep me reading for a long time. Not so, in actual fact most of the book is made up of eye candy – full page maps, timelines, distance graphs etc. with only half a page of prose being given for each island. Of course it’s definitely a case of writing quality over quantity with this one, but if somebody picks this up expecting it to offer them a substantial reading experience, then they’re going to be a little disappointed.

A bit on the pricey side?
My second minor niggle regards the price. £25 seems rather a lot for a book that only amounts to only 143 pages (including introduction and index). I know this book is beautiful and a lot of work and effort has gone into creating it, but I for one would have to think twice about buying this book to put it on my own bookshelves (I’m reading a library copy. I know, I’m a skinflint :))

Flawless translation
Finally, I should give brief mention on the translation of this book by Christine Lo. The translation is invisible, it reads as though originally written in English. The prose is neither awkward at any point, nor ambiguous. And the narrative flows freely. That’s down to a good translator that is, so Lo deserves big credit on this one.

The perfect present
In summing up then I’d have to say that I really liked Atlas of Remote Islands. I know I moaned about the price and the short length of Schalansky’s narrative pieces, but putting this aside this is still a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining book. I guess it’s one you should think about buying yourself as an indulgent treat, or as a special gift for someone else. If you are thinking of doing that then I can think of no finer choice.

Rating: ★★★★☆

:: What others have said about Atlas of Remote Islands::

  • “[Atlas of Remote Islands] is an utterly exquisite object.”Robert Macfarlane, Guardian Books.
  • “This is a great coffee table book, perfect for history buffs, dreamers or anyone who sticks pins in their maps and obsessively uses “GTrot” on Facebook.” Blair H, The Lost Girls.
  • “Every single page of The Atlas of Remote Islands is as individual and enchanting as the island it describes.”Worm, The Dabbler.

Particular Books | 07 October 2010 | £25.00 | HARDBACK | 144 PP | ISBN: 9781846143489

Judith Schalansky will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in a Newton First Book Award event with Alastair Bruce, on Friday 19th 6:45pm – 7:45pm. For ticket information and booking, please visit the event page on the EdBookFest website.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Tempting, very tempting! And Happy New Year to you and Mrs Rob, Rob!