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West on Books: Atlas Excelsior

Reviewed by Richard West

We greet the new year with a brilliant new travel-book phylum: the literary atlas. Since the 1500’s when Flemish geographer, Gerhardus Mercator drew up the first collection of modern maps and named it after the mythical figure holding up the world on the cover, the atlas has been the purest of travel books:  lines, colors, expanses, naming, showing  the essence of a traveler’s goal, there.

With the recent publication of Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, and Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, the recto-side map has been joined on its opposite verso side with an insightful essay. Thus an added bonus. Interesting thoughts and  maps in both books  exquisitely drawn and colored—Ms. Schalansky not only writing the text but designing the maps and typeset, Ms. Solnit farming out both tasks to Bay Area artists . The result is literary and graphic beauty.

The subtitle of Ms. Schalansky’s book is Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will.  That’s because 99 per cent of them are dots in vast oceans, many as dull as Thursday’s leftover rutabaga, island-specs that make Pitcairn Island look like mid-continent Kansas. But  some amaze with astonishing stories: Tromelin Island, 430 kms. east of Madagascar, where in 1760 a shipwreck left 60 slaves on 0.8 km. of land. For 15 years. Finally the remaining seven women and a baby were rescued. Four people live there now.  Or Kiribati’s Banaba , 6.5 km., in the middle of the vast Pacific  where 301 inhabitants live on an island comprised of pure phosphate, bird droppings.

One of the many glories of Ms. Solnit’s maps/essays are the pairings: “Monarchs and Queens,”  butterfly habitats and “queer public places” (“butterflies and flutter-bys”); “Death and Beauty,” sites of 2008’s 99 murders in San Francisco and the locations of 2009’s Monterey cypresses. Other maps laser in on one importance, the history of a hip street like Fillmore.  Those of us unlucky enough to live elsewhere perhaps will appreciate  most “The World in a Cup,” a map of some of the more than a thousand indie coffeeshops (compared to about 100 Starbucks) and 30-year-resident Solnit’s insider “Treasure Map: The Forth-Nine Jewels of San Francisco.”

The maps in these two new books are Gibbonian in outlook and are to your basic atlas as Michelangelo is to ceiling painting.

Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

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1 Comment

  1. Dena Timm
    January 26, 2011 at 5:45 am — Reply

    Insightful! Witty! Scintillating! More West on Books!

    -Mrs. West

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