Rockall is the world’s least visited tourist attraction according to one-time Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. He writes about Rockall in his book Maphead. Well, Judith Schlansky has beaten the champ. In Atlas of Remote Islands she wrote about Peter I near Antarctica and concluded, “There is nothing more to say about a land that no one has set foot on.”
Originally published in Germany, Atlas of Remote Islands was copyrighted in 2009 and translated into English the following year. Its hard-cover edition must have sold well enough in the U.S. to merit a paperback edition, which came out recently. Yesterday, I found it at Powell’s, Portland’s City of Books, and considered buying it. However, Powell’s still had one copy of the hard-cover edition. It was 4 times larger and only $10 more, so I bought it and have zero regrets. I literally could not put the ultimate map lover’s book down and finished it by 3 pm.
In her atlas of remoteness Judith Schlansky admits on the cover that she’s writing about “Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will”. In her eloquent introduction, subtitled “Paradise is an island. So is hell.”, she talks about growing up with an opened atlas nearby but never traveling. At age 8 she decided to become a naturalist and go to the Galapagos Islands. However, as an adult she studied art history, became a novelist, and lives in Berlin. By the time she began Atlas of Remote Islands her birth country, East Germany, had disappeared from atlases.
Schlansky divided the 50 islands she researched and reported on by ocean. Peter I is in the Antarctic and is covered by ice most of any year. The person who has come closest to landing on it is shipowner Lars Christensen. In 1927 aboard a whaling vessel he attempted a landing but failed. Basically an uninhabitable volcanic peak jutting out of very cold water, Peter I does not have a sheltering bay. It does, however, have a couple of black rock beaches that no one has walked on. People sail around Peter I but, so far, fail to land. So there’s your challenge.
About 10 pm I handed Atlas of Remote Islands to Ruth and, immediately engrossed, she was tempted to stay up all night reading it. Instead, as she went off to bed she made me promise to tell you about page 116. Tikopea is in the Pacific Ocean and has been inhabited for 3,000 years, but it is so small that it can sustain a population of only 1,200 people. Tikopeans maintain zero population growth with strict rules. Only the eldest son can start a family. Pregnant women who need to abort press hot stones to their stomachs. There are no funerals for unwanted newborns who are laid on their faces to suffocate.
Each of the 50 islands Judith Schlansky reports on is as interesting as Peter I and Tikopea. The Pukapukans don’t have a word for “virgin”. As a result….oh, heck, buy Atlas of Remote Islands and find out. You won’t regret the $ spent.