Note: My afterthoughts for Atlas of Remote Islands have now been posted (but I’d still like it if you read my forethoughts for this title, if you haven’t already).
The first thing I have to make clear about this, my next read in preparation for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, is that Atlas of Remote Islands (Particular Books; translated by Christine Lo) is NOT a work of fiction. True, Judith Schalansky has never visited any of the islands that she talks about in this book – and neither according to the book’s subtitle will she ever visit them – but everything she includes is supposedly based on fact (or at the very least, myth). So, Atlas of Remote Islands is very much a work of translated NONFICTION, but seeing as I don’t have a subsection on RobAroundBooks for such a category *blush*, I am quite unashamedly dumping it under the heading of ‘translated fiction’. For that I apologise unreservedly, and I can only hope that you will all one day forgive me for my blatant disregard for correct literary categorisation .
OK, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s crack on and take a first look at Atlas of Remote Islands, another debut which is in the running for the Newton First Book Award at this year’s EdBookFest. I’ll begin as always with the cover blurb:
Born on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, the only way Judith Schalansky could travel as a child was through the pages of an atlas. Now she has created her own, which takes us across the oceans of the world to fifty remote islands – from Iwo Jima to Tristan da Cunha and from Easter Island to Disappointment Island. On one page are her perfect maps, on the other unfold cryptic stories from the islands. Rare animals and strange people abound: marooned slaves and lonely scientists, lost explorers and confused lighthouse keepers, mutinous sailors and forgotten castaways. Armchair explorers who undertake these journeys will find themselves in places that exist in reality, but only come to life in the imagination.
I’ll admit it, I’m attracted instantly by the promise of rare animals and strange people, marooned slaves and lost explorers, who wouldn’t be? I’m not so sure about confused lighthouse keepers. I mean how are they confused? Can’t they remember where they put the matches to power their lamps? . Whatever the reason, I’m sure it’ll be interesting one.
To be honest though, as far as the blurb goes, I’m most looking forward to discovering how Disappointment Island got its name. I’m imagining a bunch of half-starved sailors clambering ashore only to find that the island’s only tea shop is closed for the winter. I’m sure I’m wrong about that but regardless, the blurb conjures up the promise of a world of adventure, and that’s difficult for a guy who constantly has his head in the clouds i.e. me, to ignore.
The blurb is one thing of course – and it’s certainly does it’s job in piquing interest – but what first strikes you about Atlas of Remote Islands is how fantastic it looks. It’s clear that a heck of a lot of thought and attention has gone into the design of this book, and aesthetically it’s an absolute triumph; so much so in fact that Atlas of Remote Islands singlehandedly turns around any notion that physical books are pale and antiquated in comparison to their electronic counterparts.
On the back cover is the proud declaration that the Atlas of Remote Islands was the winner of the German Arts Foundation Prize for the most beautiful book, and it’s easy to see why. The powder-blue covers are offset with black cloth binding and vivid orange colouring on the page edges, making the book, at first sight, instantly covetable. It’s layout too is exquisite, coming with a lavish double-page spread devoted to each of the fifty featured islands. On the right-hand page is an illustration of the island, and on the left-hand side, along with Schalansky’s prose piece for each island, are the facts and figures about the island, which detail ownership, population, distances from other islands etc. There’s also a timeline showing key events relating to each island, and this, along with much of the other page features, is all accented with the same orange hue that adorns the edges of the page. Delicious!
Now it sounds I suppose, as though I’m completely and utterly seduced by this book already, even before reading it? I guess in an aesthetic sense I absolutely am, but there’s a nugget of doubt in my mind. When a book as luxurious as this in design is presented to me, I’ll always be a little wary. Like a garage trying to sell an old car with a brand a new paint job, I immediately wonder what lies beneath; why such an effort has been put into the aesthetics. Of course, there can only be one of two possible answers – either 1) the seller is trying to dazzle the buyer into picking up something that is essentially substandard, or 2) the seller is so proud of their product that they want to present it in the most glorious way. It’s too soon for me to say of course which of these is correct in relation to Atlas of Remote Islands but I’m inclined to go with the latter, especially after reading Schalansky’s introduction in the book.
In her introduction Schalansky shows that she has had something of a lifelong obsession with atlases. As a child she wasn’t able to travel (a major consequence of being born on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, of course), and so she quelled her curiosity and thirst for wanderlust by burying herself in the pages of an atlas. And it is during these ‘voyages with her index finger’, that Schalansky discovered a love for islands and a passion for their remoteness and bizarre histories. Her obsession has never left her, and these ‘chamber pieces in the middle of nowhere’ have given rise to the creation of this unique atlas. What’s more, in creating this book, Schalansky was able to further fuel her love of atlases and armchair exploration. She states in an article written for The Guardian:
My work on the Atlas of Remote Islands took me on an adventure, an expedition through dusty tomes, travellers’ journals and obscure scientific reports on tiny islands.
A woman who is already obsessed with a subject, being further fuelled by discovery and exploration? I’d say that’s a recipe for success, or at the very least a bibliophile’s idea of heaven, what with her getting the opportunity to rummage around in all of those old, fragrant, dusty tomes and all that.
That brings me nicely to the subject of Judith Schalansky herself, and aside from knowing that she has a bit of a thang for atlases, what else can I tell you about her? Well given that she’s still relatively new to the literary scene (especially the English-speaking one), it probably comes as little surprise to hear that there’s not a great deal of information about her, floating around. I’ve already mentioned that she was born in East Germany (in 1980 in Greifswald, to be precise), and it’s here that she earned degrees in History of Art, and Communication Design.
Currently, Schalansky works as a freelance writer and designer in Berlin, where she also teaches courses in typography at the Potsdam Technical Institute, and that’s got me thinking. Is Judith Schalansky responsible for the design of Atlas of Remote Islands, herself? Nothing on the book either confirms or refutes such a claim, but given her professional qualifications and the fact that she stated in that aforementioned Guardian article that she “drew 50 maps all to the same scale”, such a thing might well be possible. I’ll endeavour to find out dear reader, unless of course you know the answer to that question already?
So there we have it, a short preview of Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, a book which I’m very excited about diving into. And I’m excited mainly because of Schalansky’s obvious passion for the subject, but also because the whole thing about islands and thinking about them brings a kind of mystique, romantic image to my mind. When I think of islands I think instantly of Homer’s Odysseus and his epic island-hopping return to Ithaca (by far the most soul nurturing thing I studied at university), or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and even Tom Hanks stuck on his island in the movie, Cast Away. All evoke a sense of exotic in me, together with a sense of being stranded, lost and helpless in places far off. And I think that Schalansky has that same feeling (albeit in a more profound way), and I think reading her book will only deepen my own attraction towards these small dots on the globe that look barely bigger than biscuit crumbs. How thrilling the reading prospect is, and I’ll be back as soon as to let you know how my armchair voyage turned out.
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.
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.