Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name, the atrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world …


As a literary wonk who has traveled the world and grown with each adventure, I found particular delight in Atlas of Remote Islands, a marvelous book by Judith Schalansky.

Beautiful in both aesthetics and wordcraft, each page introduces the reader to one of 50 islands that have been placed like jewels by God on our rich and eclectic planet.

Schalansky writes

The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact.

An example is her stunning description of Brava, from the Portuguese literally “Untamable”

This clenched heart lies untamable, protected from the wind by the great volcano of the neighboring island. Here, at the outermost edge of the archipelago, the clouds hang low and it rains more than on the other islands, which are continually battered by desert winds. Dew forms on the leaves of the almond trees and the date and coconut palms, on the petals of the fringing lobelia, oleander, hibiscus, jasmine and bougainvillea. This island has veins of rivers and strong muscles in its mountain range.

The faint beat of the melancholy morna sounds, and the old song pulses relentlessly in a minor key, a lament about the inescapability of fate. A yearning for a place that is at once everywhere and nowhere.”

Brava, indeed.