Tikopia, Santa Cruz Islands, (Solomon Islands), Pacific Ocean
"Human beings have lived on this island for three thousand years. It is so small that the breaking waves can be heard even from the center of the island. The Tikopians catch fish in the brackish water of their lake and shellfish from the sea. They cultivate yams, bananas, and giant swamp taro, and bury breadfruit for lean times. That is enough to keep 1200 people—but no more"
Peter I Island, (Antarctica), Antarctic Ocean
"The untouched land of Peter I Island in the Antarctic presented an anomaly, intolerable to our human compulsion to leave tracks across this earth. [...] Three expeditions failed in their attempts to conquer the island, which is almost completely covered in ice. It was only in 1929—108 years after its discovery—that it was landed on, and until the 1990s more people had set foot on the moon than on the island."
Howland Island, Phoenix Islands, (United States), Pacific Ocean
On the morning of July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart set off on her attempt to fly around the world. "Off Howland Island—2556 miles away—the Itasca, an American Coast Guard cutter, is waiting for her with fuel and freshly made beds. The atoll is so small that a single cloud is enough to obscure it from view. At 7.42 a.m., Earhart's voice is heard on the radio: 'We must be on you, but cannot see you—fuel running low.' [...] The crew of the Itasca search the horizon with binoculars and send signals, but there is no reply. Amelia Earhart disappears just beyond the date line on a flight into yesterday."
Deception Island, South Shetland Island, (Antarctica), Antarctic Ocean
"Hidden behind the dozing volcano is one of the safest harbors in the world: Whaler's Bay. It is the southernmost whale oil processing plant in the world, with its own fleet: two triple-masted ships, eight small whaling steamers, and two large ones. Apart from a handful of Chilean stokers, two hundred Norwegians live here, along with one woman: Marie Betsy Rasmussen, the first female ever to be in Antarctica."
Ascension Island, (United Kingdom), Atlantic Ocean
"This is a wasteland of cooled lava, inhospitable as the moon. [...] It is a working island for telecommunications operators and spies, and a landing site for the cables that run along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean to connect the continents. NASA stretches out its feelers here, building a tracking facility for intercontinental missiles and scattering glistening white parabolic antennae all over the land, oversized golf balls stuck to the edges of the craters."
Fangataufa, Tuamoto Archipelago (French-Polynesia), Pacific Ocean
"On 24 August 1968, everything is ready for the big test: the detonation of the first French hydrogen bomb. [...] Afterwards, nothing remains. No houses, no installations, no trees, nothing. The entire island is evacuated because of radioactive contamination. No one is allowed to set foot on Fangataufa for six years."
Takuu, (Papua New Guinea), Pacific Ocean
"Neither missionaries nor researchers are allowed on the island. The people of Takuu wish to stay true to themselves and to their beliefs. [...] Takuu will sink—next month, next year."
Bouvet Island, (Norway), Atlantic Ocean
"At thirty minutes past three [on November 25, 1898], the first officer cries, 'The Bouvets are in front of us!' But what appears first in hazy, then in increasingly clear, outline only seven nautical miles to starboard is not a group but a single steep island in all its wild glory, with sheer walls of ice and glaciers cascading to sea level... This is it, Bouvet Island, sought in vain by three expeditions, missing for nearly seventy-five years."
Diego Garcia, Chagos Archipelago, (United Kingdom), Indian Ocean
The Chagossians lost their homeland and their life in a modest paradise over forty years ago. [...] Now there is a military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is the most secretive base in the world. [...] Its name: Camp Justice."
Taongi Atoll, Ratak Chain, (Marshall Islands), Pacific Ocean
On Sunday morning, February 11, 1979, Scott Moorman, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, but relocated to Maui, "and four friends decide to go fishing. [...] Just before noon, the wind rises, turning into a storm by the afternoon and a hurricane over the island by the evening, whipping the sea up and laying waste to the coastline. [...] The coastguard searches for five days, and the men's family and friends continue searching for another week. They find nothing."
"Nine and a half year later, one of the searchers, the marine biologist John Naughton, finds a wrecked boat on the beach of Taongi, the northernmost and driest atoll of the Marshall Islands, 3750 kilometers west of Hawaii. [...] There is a simple grave nearby: a cross of driftwood on a pile of stones. [...] These are discovered to be the remains of Scott Moorman. Who buried him here and where the other men are remains a mystery."
For the first 9 years of her life, Judith Schalansky grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in East Germany. "East Germans," she writes, "could not travel, only the Olympic team were allowed beyond our borders." Nonetheless, after watching a documentary about the Galapagos Islands at the age of 8, she would spend hours with her head buried in an atlas, voyaging around the world in her imagination. A year later, her country disappeared from the map altogether, when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was re-unified.
Schalanksy's second book, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, was just published in English translation. In it, she illustrates and annotates 50 of the world's most remote islands, moving ocean by ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her introduction describes the attraction of these isolated places:
Many islands lie so far from their mother countries that they no longer fit on the maps of that country. [...] Every connection to the mainland has been lost. There is no mention of the rest of the world.
Of course, she notes, an island is not necessarily remote if it is your home. The people of Easter Island, which is more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent, call their homeland Te Pito Te Henua, which translates as "the navel of the world."
But for explorers, naturalists, pirates, and dreamers, islands exert an irresistable fascination, as Schalansky's miniature histories demonstrate:
In the nineteenth century, seven clans lived in micro-communist harmony under the patriarchal rule of the Scot William Glass on the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. Dr. Ritter, a Berlin dentist tired of civilization and the global economic crisis, set up a retreat on the island of Floreana in the Galapagos in 1929, where he aimed to renounce all that was superfluous, including clothing.
A remote island's very insignificance makes it all the more potent as myth. "The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses," writes Schalansky, but "an island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story."
When it first came out, in German, in 2009, The Atlas of Remote Islands won the German Arts Foundation Prize for the most beautiful book of the year. It is not hard to see why. Each island is shown at the same scale but on its own page, delicately etched onto a blue-gray sea. Next to it lies a short paragraph, which blurs the line between encyclopedic and poetic, recounting geographic fact, origin fables, and excerpts from sailors' diaries in the same breath.
Most of us will never visit these islands, Schalansky seems to be saying, and yet we also already have. The islands of our imagination are more powerful than their reality could ever be.
This slideshow excerpts a mere 10 of Schalansky's 50 islands—if you still need to buy a last-minute stocking stuffer for someone who loves maps, mysteries, and gorgeous design, I can't recommend the book too highly.