The best books on islands

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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Henry Stommel

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.


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

By Judith Schalansky

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. 


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The Island of Doctor Moreau

By H.G. Wells

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.


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Swallows and Amazons

By Arthur Ransome

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.


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Robinson Crusoe

By Daniel Defoe

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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