Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession by Gavin Francis was a psychological trip into my own island obsession. I read eerie similarities between the author and myself in analyzing our mutual preference for taking holidays to insular destinations. I had a feeling that I would be reading deep into my own mind when I encountered, on the very first page, the author’s earliest memories of visiting libraries and what he enjoyed most about them:

“Thinking of islands often returns me in memory to the municipal library I visited as a child. The library was one of the grandest buildings in town–entered directly from the street through heavy brass doors, each one tessellated in panes of glass thick as lenses. By age eight or nine I’d exhausted the children’s library and been given an adult borrower’s ticket. But as my mother browsed the shelves, often as not I’d sit down on the scratchy carpet tiles and open an immense atlas, running my fingers over distant and unreachable archipelagos as if reading Braille. I hardly dared hope I’d reach any of them; that I have reached a few is something of a relief. And so the love of islands has always, for me, been inextricable from the love of maps.”

Francis and I shared the exact same story, although I was a little older when I discovered the National Geographic Atlas of the World. What draws us to these destinations? Surely there are other places that are just as interesting yet easier to get to. Why spend extra time and expense hightailing it to a dot in the water? Francis elaborates on a possible answer:

“But through adolescence, medical school, and working as a doctor in speciality training, it began to dawn on me that I sought out islands to recalibrate my sense of what matters. Their absence of connection, their isolation, was therapeutic in a way I found difficult to articulate.”

During my travelogue presentations on my trips to Tristan da Cunha, I give a brief history of the island and my particular attraction to it. Knowing that people who attend my shows are there to see photos from my trips and not to sit there listening to some guy talking in front of a blank screen, in my opening monologue I defer to the excuse “I’d have to lie down on a psychiatrist’s couch in order to explain in depth my psychological attraction to islands as vacation destinations”. For Francis is correct: it is difficult to articulate the reasons we find islands so appealing. I find it therapeutic as well, as I use islands as a way to get away from people and the proverbial hustle and bustle of my everyday life. How else to explain my penchant for visiting isolated islands or ones that have low populations? You don’t find me taking trips to Indonesia, Japan or the Philippines, for example. Yet my own travel blog is filled with vacation reports–and often repeated trips–spent in the Åland Islands, Ile de Batz, Bornholm, Christiansø, the Faroe Islands, Grímsey, Iceland, McNabs Island, Nightingale Island, Pelee Island, Tristan da Cunha, Vardø, and Vestmannaeyjar. Last year Mark and I had planned a trip to Europe which included a stop in the Isle of Man.

While I have to use vacation time to visit these islands, Francis was a doctor and made his obsession a part of his job by taking temporary medical assignments to remote islands the world over. In Island Dreams, we follow him as he travels the world but his story is not a chronological narrative. In fact, his book is heavy on the maps and low on the text. The book is only 246 pages long but printed on thick paper–perhaps in homage to the exploration maps of centuries ago. Francis gave the reading experience the conscious feeling of containment, as the text was descriptive and informative yet brief, captured on pages with wide margins and headers and footers. Pages therefore resembled islands of text surrounded by moats of margins. The words themselves were contained, as I never saw a hyphenated word split across two pages and with rare exception each page ended with complete sentences, anchored by periods.

Francis wrote some evocative descriptions of his travels, such as this memory of the aurora borealis:

“A wash of swirling luminescence rose and fell, like marbled endpapers spread over the book of the sea.”

While visiting the Andaman Islands, my temples started to throb when Francis wrote:

“On the ground the heat was like a migraine, pounding and shimmering, fracturing the light.”

Francis filled his book with maps, almost all of which were historical in context and thus may not have even referred to the places he was discussing by their current names. Maps flanked the text so the reader never had to flip ahead or back to find out where he was writing about. Some maps weren’t even in English. In spite of these forms of disguise, I found it a pleasure to try to find the islands from these small maps, as it wasn’t always easy and I often used a magnifying glass. It is fitting that he used Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as the map on the book cover; each antiquated map Francis supplied yielded its own treasure to the reader with the patience to search within it.

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