Winter 2010

Theatre of cartography

Atlas of Remote Islands

by Judith Schalansky, Particular Books / Penguin, £25

Judith Schalansky subtitles her Atlas of Remote Islands (Particular Books / Penguin, £25) ‘Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will’ and it is clear why: the clarity and poetry with which Schalansky (best known for Fraktur mon Amour, see Eye 71) approaches her subject could only have been born in imagination. With a stronger nod to Marco Polo than the data-driven cartography of today, this award-winning atlas is a triumph of charm and single-minded vision, inspired during a childhood ensconced on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

Her delicate illustrations, whose solitary positions on each page accentuate the isolation of the islands they describe, are juxtaposed with effusive vignettes that detail the islands’ known histories, bountiful and brutal alike. There is a tension that haunts Schalansky’s prose, and as one reads further the book’s subtitle seems to be more promise than statement.

The book is impeccably constructed. Schalansky’s use of a fluorescent orange to pick out data such as man-made areas and distances to nearest landmasses, along with a small graphic key on every page that shows the location of each island, makes the volume easy to navigate, and provides a counterpoint to the quieter elegance of its typesetting and illustration.

To dissect this book in terms of its component parts, however, is to rob it of its greater achievement.

The Atlas breaks beyond the insular, incestuous appeal of many publications by graphic designers, and has the potential to reach out to a much wider audience. If, as Schalansky points out in her text, an atlas is the ‘theatre of the world’, her Atlas of Remote Islands puts us all in the stalls. Alexander Ecob

First published in Eye no. 78 vol. 20 2010

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.