Judith Schalansky - The most terrible events have the greatest potential to tell a story, and islands make the perfect setting for them

Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands, Trans. by Christine Lo, Penguin, 2010.

"Those in the Northen Hemisphere may take some espace from the weather through Judith Schalansky’s illustrated book, Atlas of Remote Islands. In their words:
There are still places on earth that are unknown. Visually stunning and uniquely designed, this wondrous book captures fifty islands that are far away in every sense-from the mainland, from people, from airports, and from holiday brochures. Author Judith Schalansky used historic events and scientific reports as a springboard for each island, providing information on its distance from the mainland, whether its inhabited, its features, and the stories that have shaped its lore. With stunning full-color maps and an air of mysterious adventure, Atlas of Remote Islands is perfect for the traveler or romantic in all of us.”

"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."

'To open this utterly enchanting book is to turn into Robinson Crusoe – for a while at least.' - Die Zeit

'A gorgeous concoction. Many attractive books are published every year but this one inspires beautiful thoughts... Next time you're thinking of a budget break, buy this instead; rarely has armchair travel been so far-flung and romantic.' - Time Out

"There are still places on this earth that are unknown. Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky captures fifty remote islands that are far away in every sense — far from the mainland, from people, from airports and from holiday brochures.
Using historic events and scientific reports as a springboard, Atlas of Remote Islands creates a story around each island: fantastical, inscrutable stories, imagined realities for surviving on a few square meters of land. Rare animals and strange people abound: from marooned slaves to lonely scientists, lost explorers to confused lighthouse keepers, mutinous sailors to forgotten castaways, upstanding convicts to officials exiled in punishment.
Gorgeously illustrated and with color maps throughout, the atlas shows all fifty islands on the same scale, in order of the oceans they are in. Judith Schalansky lures us onto fifty remote islands — from Tristan da Cunha to Clipperton Atoll, from Christmas Island to Easter Island — and proves that the most adventurous journeys still take place in the mind, with one finger pointing at a map."

"Nauru isn't covered by Judith Schalansky in her Atlas of Remote Islands but the found narratives woven into the histories of the fifty other islands profiled, will strike a chord with those familiar with the Pacific island’s tragic story. In her introduction Schalansky, a typographer by trade, explains she harboured a long endured fascination with maps and the exoticism that they hold within their careful cartographic coding, stemming she reasons, from the isolation of her childhood growing up behind the wall in East Berlin. Schalansky’s still-maintained preoccupation with the romantic notions of islands, which she raptures about, is strange given the stories of paradise lost, betrayal and criminality that she unearths in the histories of many of the fifty inhabited and remote islands subsequently profiled.
Each island is given a double page spread, with a carefully illustrative map on one side, faced with a short anecdotal history on the other, researched by the author through rare books. Also included for each is a timeline and a figure charting the diminutive population size of these communities. The reader hears stories of rotting whale carcasses subsuming the uninhabited Antarctic island of Deception; the tinpot despotism of the lighthouse keeper of Clipperton Atoll in the Pacific Ocean; the death of marooned sailor Harry Eld at the beaks of a thousand birds on Australia’s Macquarie Island; the much media-covered abuse rife among the 48 residents of Pacific Pitcairn; and the historic high child fatality rate among the Hebridean people of St Kilda. The histories that Schalansky recounts are not verifiable fact, but they offer a narrative in which – for all the geographic symbolism of the maps therein – humans play the central role. The reader cannot help but be left with a pessimistic take on our condition. That as a species, we are prone to the kind of horror that Joseph Conrad subjected Charles Marlow to as the protagonist in Heart of Darkness, one that, given isolation from distraction, people’s propensity to instigate an unnerving terror on each other, comes to a frightening fore." - Oliver Basciano

"This is a book I wish I’d written. It’s a beautifully illustrated book of 50 of the most remote and obscure islands in the world.Featured are some of my favourites – Clipperton, Bouvetoya, Peter 1 Island,St. Paul,Amsterdam… and I share the author’s passion for armchair exploration. On Tristan Da Cunha I wish she’d chosen Inaccesible Island or even Stoltenhoff rather than Tristan itself. She also misses out several of the most descriptive names of places on Tristan such as ‘Potato Patches’ ‘The place where the goat jumped off’ ‘The place where the minster landed his things’ and ‘Jenny’s waterin’ though mercifully retained ‘Hottentot Point’ She also lists the only place of habitation as ‘Edinburgh of the Seven Seas’ – a colonial office name ignored by all tristanians and known only as ‘the settlement’. That said it’s a beguiling book." - Ian Bone

"Schalansky got interested in maps and atlases for the most personal of reasons. She was born in East Berlin; when she was 10, East and West Germany merged, “and the country I was born in disappeared from the map.” With that, she lost interest in political maps and became fascinated with the basic building blocks of Earth’s land masses: physical topography.
Fascinating stuff.
You doubt me?
Consider: Schalansky sees a finger traveling across a map as “an erotic gesture.”
Consider: Schalansky disdains any island you can easily get to. The more remote the destination, the more enthusiastic she is for it. Like Peter I Island in the Antarctic - until the late 1990s, fewer people had visited it than had set foot on the moon.
Consider: Schalansky believes “the most terrible events have the greatest potential to tell a story” - and “islands make the perfect setting for them.” Thus, the line at the start of the book: “Paradise is an island. So is hell.”
The result? Fifty islands. The world’s loneliest places, in lovely two-page spreads, with geographical information and curious histories on the left, and, on the right, a map of the hapless land mass set on a deceptively peaceful blue background.
Start in the Far North, at Lonely Island, where the average annual temperature is -16 degrees. In the Indian Ocean, on Diego Garcia, is a secretive British military base with a golf course where 500 families once lived. A hundred twenty million crabs begin life on Christmas Island; millions of penguins inhabit Macquarie Island. France tested its hydrogen bomb on Fangataufa, after which no one was allowed to set foot on it for six years. On Pukapuka, there is no word for “virgin.” The Banabas hang their dead from their huts until the flesh disappears; they store the bones under their houses.
And, to give you a sense of Schalansky’s lovely, ironic style as a writer:
St. Kilda, United Kingdom
There are sixteen cottages, three houses and one church in the only village on St. Kilda. The island’s future is written in its graveyard. Its children are all born in good health, but most stop feeding during their fourth, fifth or sixth night. On the seventh day, their palates tighten and their throats constrict, so it becomes impossible to get them to swallow anything. Their muscles twitch and their jaws hang loose. Their eyes grow staring and they yawn a great deal; their mouth stretch in mocking grimaces. Between the seventh and ninth day, two-thirds of the newborn babies die, boys outnumbering girls. Some die sooner, some later: one dies on the fourth day, another not till the twenty-first
Amsterdam Island, France
Everyone who stays on Amsterdam for longer than a year is examined by a medical officer from the south of France to check that he is coping with the long period of restriction of movement and the confined, purely masculine environment. No woman has visited longer than two days. At night, the men gather in the small video room in Great Skua to watch one of the porn films from their personal collection. Each man sits in a row on his own. The loudspeakers emit grunts and groans, and the air is heavy with the musky scent of the bull seals.
Are these stories true? The author is cagy:
That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. Every detail stems from factual sources…however I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books, and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.
Transformed? Well, why not - it’s not like you’re booking a ticket to visit any of these places. Just the opposite. Reading in your favorite chair, sipping a cuppa, you can conclude there’s no place like home." - Jesse Kornbluth

"I often sit and stare at the map on the wall above my computer, looking not at the large land masses but at the tiny dots scattered throughout the huge oceans. The tiny dots are, of course, islands and as such, offer up images of sunshine, palm trees, coconuts, and easy living.
In reality, the majority of these tiny dots represent small remote islands with fascinating names that intrigue and entice you to come and visit. Their extreme climatic and geological conditions, however, often make access to them difficult, if not down right impossible.
But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to go.
And reading a recent review of the Atlas of Remote Islands it’s pretty clear I’m not the only one who stares at tiny dots on the map.
Written by acclaimed novelist and award-winning graphic designer Judith Schalansky, the Atlas of Remote Islands is the result of a lifelong fascination with maps. Growing up in East Germany, Judith’s only opportunity to travel was through the pages of old atlases.
Years later, her continual love affair with atlases shines through with her own imaginative atlas to fifty of the world’s loneliest islands.
With hand drawn detailed topographic maps and intricate local histories, each of the islands comes alive through stories about marooned slaves, lonely scientists, lost explorers, mutinous sailors, confused lighthouse keepers, and forgotten castaways." - perceptivetravel.com

"Is it possible to confuse a romance novel for an atlas? Judith Schalansky thinks they’re one in the same. She describes her passion beautifully, “For me Atlases are the most poetic books of all, the body of the earth shown on a map.” And with this interpretation in mind, I seek understanding.
I picked up the book and noticed instantly how attractive it is. They say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but I couldn't help it; and with the initial physical attraction I opened the pages to maps that looked as though they were painted in the Middle Ages. They are clear, artistic, and true to scale. I approached the text and continued my love affair.
Beginning with the unusual subheading to Schalansky’s book which reads, Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, I admit, at first I was both intrigued and confused. Exploring these emotions, I immersed myself into the introduction and was left wanting more.
I quickly learned that Judith has in fact never been to these places on the book's cover, yet, she has a fascination for atlases dating back to her childhood. Her romantic writing style causes me to identify my own dreams in hers and like that, I was hooked.
Judith grew up in the East Germany and therefore was prohibited from traveling outside its boundaries. Such unfortunate circumstances gave way to an attraction to atlases. In the comfort of her home she found herself traveling to many far off lands at the turn of a page, and as she studied their physical shapes, she imagined their histories.
How Did She Choose?
I asked Judith how she chose which islands to include in her book. She replied, “The casting went in two ways. I looked for both the available map material and for the existing stories about the island.” As she uncovered their unique pasts, Schalansky applied the facts to brief anecdotes about each island. The result is a story that may have happened on the island, given the actual history. Her method is a clever play on both reality and fantasy." - Beth Simmons

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