The best books about the lure and mystery of islands

Alastair Bonnett Author Of Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age of Islands
By Alastair Bonnett

Who am I?

I’m a geography professor and travel writer. I’ve been writing books about the planet’s hidden and overlooked corners for some years now. In a world where people often imagine that everywhere is known, mapped and probably under the gaze of a security camera, that might seem a tall order. In fact, the world is teeming with places that remain, resolutely, stubbornly, or just weirdly and literally, ‘off the map’. And you don’t have to go far to find them; they can often be found under your feet or just round the corner.

I wrote...

Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age of Islands

By Alastair Bonnett,

Book cover of Elsewhere: A Journey Into Our Age of Islands

What is my book about?

My latest book is The Age of Islands: In Search of New and Disappearing Islands (published in the USA and Canada as Elsewhere: A Journey into Our Age of Islands). I wrote it because something very peculiar is happening to islands. At the same time as they are disappearing because of sea-level rise, new ones are popping up. New islands are being designed and sculptured in fancy, outlandish shapes off numerous shores. I travelled the planet to find them. In China, Panama, and UEA I found extraordinary new maritime exclaves for the wealthy. I also found new islands being built as dumping grounds:  repositories for the things we don’t want onshore, like airports and toxic waste. You can also read about my adventures trying to get to a new volcanic island in Tonga. It didn’t go well! I draw up maps of all these places, as well as some of the islands that are still on the drawing board and will be sprouting out of the sea over the coming decades.

The books I picked & why

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Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from Nautical Charts

By Henry Stommel,

Book cover of Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from Nautical Charts

Why this book?

All sorts of islands have been spotted from afar and printed on our maps, only to be revisited years later and found to be ephemeral or just plain delusions. This book is a historical survey of late nineteenth-century British and American attempts to verify islands and establish a final, accurate map of the world. It was an impossible task back then and it is even more challenging today, for islands are coming and going with increasing speed.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Island I Have Not Visited and Never Will

By Judith Schalansky,

Book cover of Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Island I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Why this book?

What an odd book this is and how appealing. It’s as much art as geography. Schalansky’s style is cool and dry: she maps her unvisited islands and writes a little account of each. One of her fifty is Banaba Island, sitting thousands of miles from anywhere in the middle of the Pacific. It’s somehow comforting and moving to see its bays and hills, to acknowledge its existence and just let it be. 

The Island of Doctor Moreau

By H.G. Wells,

Book cover of The Island of Doctor Moreau

Why this book?

I recently reread The Island of Doctor Moreau and I’d forgotten how clever it is. Written in 1896 it looks forward to modern debates on genetics and what makes us human, all the while radically questioning the borderline between other species and us. All these ideas roam freely in a compulsive horror story, as freely as the island’s many bizarre beasts.

Swallows and Amazons

By Arthur Ransome,

Book cover of Swallows and Amazons

Why this book?

What would Swallows and Amazons be without its islands? As in so many other children’s stories, it’s the speck of sovereignty that is Wild Cat Island and Peel Island that holds the key to the book’s appeal. To be honest I always found it difficult to identify with John, Susan, or Titty but the charm of those islands, adult-free and claimable, needs no explanation.

Robinson Crusoe

By Daniel Defoe,

Book cover of Robinson Crusoe

Why this book?

The reason why this book has been in print, pretty much since it first appeared in 1719, lies in its almost tedious detail. Defoe’s description of the daily chores, the sheer effort, of survival is believable and, hence, compelling. It’s also a story of religion, slavery, and, to modern eyes, blatant racism. Crusoe was captured and enslaved in North Africa, he escapes and eventually becomes a slave trader, and goes on to treat ‘Friday’ as his slave. These chilling facts are treated in the same matter-of-fact way that Defoe applies to collecting drinking water.

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