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the Complete Review
the complete review - geography

Atlas of Remote Islands

Judith Schalansky

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To purchase Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands

Title: Atlas of Remote Islands
Author: Judith Schalansky
Genre: Atlas
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 133 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands - US
Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands - UK
Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands - Canada
Atlas des îles abandonnées - France
Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln - Deutschland
Atlante delle isole remote - Italia
Atlas de islas remotas - España
  • Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will
  • Originally published as Atlas of Remote Islands; now re-published as Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands
  • German title: Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln
  • Translated by Christine Lo
  • With fifty maps, drawn by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a wonderful concept, well executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural . 7/3/2014 Andrés Barba
The Geographical Rev. . (101:4) Arthur Krim
The Guardian . 17/12/2010 Robert Macfarlane
Literary Review . 12/2010 David Profumo
The Spectator . 15/1/2011 Andro Linklater
The Times . 23/10/2010 Iain Finlayson
Die Welt . 6/2/2010 Rainer Moritz
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2012 John Tyler Allen
Die Zeit . 22/10/2009 Alexander Cammann

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Schalansky ha tenido el buen gusto de no privar al lector de hacer su propio viaje personal a través de esos mapas isleños. Donde cualquier escritor mediocre nos habría hecho tragar su propia fantasía sobre tal bahía o tal cabo, la astucia de Schalansky se manifiesta precisamente en rodear el misterio con algo palpable, algo sólido, una historia." - Andrés Barba, El Cultural

  • "The Atlas of Remote Islands satisfies the exploratory urge for armchair geographers and seafaring tales. Judith Schalansky has provided an entertaining volume for amateur explorers and appreciative cartographers alike. Her hand-drawn maps are a pleasure to examine in their precise detail, while her brief texts offer related narratives of amusement. However, the lack of a reference list or footnotes leaves the reader adrift in search of historical or geological data." - Arthur Krim, The Geographical Review

  • "(S)he decided to make a virtue of absence. The result is what must be the first ever atlas produced by sitting still. (...) (H)er book makes a magnificent case for the atlas to be recognised as literature, worthy of its original name -- theatrum orbis terrarum, "the theatre of the world"." - Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian

  • "Although she travels like Jules Verne, she describes each lonely deceptive landfall like Jorge Luis Borges. (...) The writing is mercurial and bewitching. Almost as good as a map." - Andro Linklater, The Spectator

  • "Schalansky has chosen 50 real islands and described them in an atlas of wonders that begs more questions than it answers, leaving the rest to dreamers." - Iain Finlayson, The Times

  • "Mit sprühender Fabulierlust greift Judith Schalansky ins Arsenal der skurrilen und aberwitzigen Inselgeschichten (und man wundert sich deshalb sehr, dass dem Band kein Quellen- und Literaturverzeichnis beigegeben ist). Sie zitiert, schmückt aus, dichtet um und fühlt sich in ihr Personal ein (.....) Judith Schalanskys Atlas ist ein Füllhorn von Schicksalen, deren Inselbezug ihnen eine so unabweisbare Eindringlichkeit gibt." - Rainer Moritz, Die Welt

  • "Her love for maps is immediately infectious. (...) The most stirring element in the collective history of these islands is the horrifying truth that even in paradise, we can't escape how painfully human we are. These exotic islands, with perfect climates and beautiful beaches, are ripe with cruelty and suffering. Isolated from the corrupt culture of the mainland, these islands fare no better." - John Tyler Allen, World Literature Today

  • "A book that has lately given me the utmost pleasure is one that simply happened to catch my fancy in a pile at Browsers Bookshop, Porthmadog, Wales. I do not need it in the least. It is Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky, translated from the German and subtitled “Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will.” So beautifully designed is this little caprice, so meticulous are its maps and so entertaining its matter (...), that I expect to be consulting it as often as I do the Oxford Dictionary." - Jan Morris, The New York Times Book Review (7/12/2014)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[This review is based on the original hardcover edition, Atlas of Remote Islands; the book has since been re-published as Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands -- presumably just a smaller-size version of the original, but I have not seen a copy to compare with.]

       Born in what was then still the German Democratic Republic, Judith Schalansky as a child understood that she could not really go anywhere: the reality of her world was that: "East Germans could not travel, only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders". (This is a slight exaggeration -- East Germans could travel relatively easily in the Eastern bloc -- but her larger point is taken.) Atlantes, however, offered a glimpse of a world beyond, with depictions in them that often seemed as revealing as the actual places might be. Atlas of Remote Islands is her own collection of Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, with maps of each that she drew (as precisely as one would expect to find in an atlas) and, on each facing page, a descriptive piece related to the place -- some bits of history or a general overview.
       In her Preface she emphasizes:

All text in the book is based on extensive research and every details stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.
       The atlas is divided into five sections, one each of islands in each of the five major oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic. The islands seem chosen mostly for their very remoteness. Each entry gives the name (and variations), what country they are claimed by, their size and the number of residents (including quite a few that are uninhabited). Distance- and time-lines show their distance from the nearest land, as well as the times of their (modern-day) discovery and other significant dates.
       The islands range from the fairly well-known -- Easter Island, St. Helena (where Napoleon was exiled), Iwo Jima -- to the obscure, such as Antipodes Island ("almost directly opposite the zero meridian of Greenwich") or Deception Island. Schalansky offers a range of pieces about them, both historical and descriptive. Remoteness, unsurprisingly -- it's the common element among these islands --, features prominently, with many so inhospitable and/or out of the way that they remain uninhabited. From the testing of the a hydrogen bomb to Amelia Earhart's disappearance, as well as various voyagers' experiences centuries ago, Schalansky presents engaging titbits from and about these far-flung places.
       The maps, topographically drawn, with the only real color small bits of orange to represent the few settlements, roads, and structures on some of the islands, are fascinating in and of themselves, too, the islands of different shapes, with some just thin crusts of land surrounding a lagoon (with Takuu barely showing any more, for example, a: "brittle ring of sand only one metre above the high tide-mark") and many jutting surprisingly high out of the oceans.
       Schalansky closes her Preface with the exclamation:
Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.
       And indeed, just the map-part -- and the names, dates, and distances recorded for each island -- of this Atlas of Remote Islands would suffice, on its own. The complementary texts have some appeal, too, but, for better and worse, the variety highlights different aspects of the islands and their histories -- a miscellany that is somewhat at odds with the uniform approach to the maps themselves. There are some very good stories here -- and, offering only a brief bit about each island (never more than a page), Schalansky does leave a lot to the reader (and the reader's imagination), but there's something to be said for the purity of a map-book alone.
       This is, above all, a lovely and well-produced volume; it is also a very enjoyable book to peruse and return to -- neat glimpses of places most of us are unlikely to physically ever even get close to.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 December 2021

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Atlas of Remote Islands: Reviews: Other books by Judith Schalansky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Judith Schalansky was born in 1980.

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© 2021 the complete review

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