Atlas Freak A review of Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will by Judith Schalansky
Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will (Penguin Books, $28) is a book that opens like a trunk of dusty letters in an attic—full of the promise of the unknown, and the discovery of small delights. Schalansky admits from the get-go that she is an atlas fanatic, a “child of the atlas’ as it were, drawn to the lines, blurred colors and ridges, and aerial glimpses of exotic lands. Schalansky’s fascination with outlying places has led her to islands—particularly lonely islands, these pieces of land that are rarely visited, sometimes left off maps altogether; where ice and emptiness have left a “beautiful void.” It is not surprising in this age of overload that such places would hold allure, but they do so particularly in the way they’ve been rendered here: each forgotten island given its own page with a mirroring page that delves into its secrets. Each description gives the reader reason to pause. Take Lonely Island in Russia, which lies in the center of the Kara Sea. Schalansky writes: “No one lives here. A former polar observatory has sunk in the snow and abandoned buildings doze in the belly of the bay…A prehistoric dragon’s skeleton was found here.” There is poetry in the book’s simplicity, and a reminder of the beauty of print.