Island: How Islands Transform the World


Island: How Islands Transform the World by J. Edward Chamberlin tells of the impact islands have made on human history. I have taken many visits to islands as holiday destinations: Prince Edward Island, the Åland Islands, Vardø, the Faroes, Bornholm, Newfoundland and Tristan da Cunha, so I thought Island would be a book I’d want to take with me as a desert-island classic. This book was only 242 pages long but when it takes eight days to get through as short a book as this, there can only be one reason: it bored me to sleep. Even though it covered a subject matter that seemed directed to me personally, for 2013 was the year I announced would be devoted to reading books about islands in homage to my upcoming trip–now past–to Tristan da Cunha, Island never caught my interest as I thought it would. Perhaps Chamberlin’s brevity was the problem; for example, I would have preferred to learn much more about the history of sailing and the development of sails in their role in both settling islands as well as getting people off them. At least provide me with more than just a few pages on these topics, as Island, to its credit, covers an enormous range of subject matter. In addition to sailing, Chamberlin discusses island formation and continental drift, the earliest days of European exploration, Darwin’s theory of evolution, flightless birds, the role of islands in literature…so much to cover yet so little between the covers. I jumped around Island like an island-hopper, taking in only a little bit of information about each new train of thought.

When it came to the specific islands themselves, instead of entire chapters on specific island groups, there were only a few pages on each. Unfortunately for me, an island-lover as it is, these pages told me things I already knew, although I am sure that readers who had never read about the Faroes or Rockall before would have enjoyed their brief sections. He also wrote longer passages about Iceland, the Galápagos and Newfoundland.

Chamberlin covers the differing opinions of what constitutes an island. How big should it be? Or rather, how small? Chamberlin, as a Canadian, filled Island with Canadian references such as the following definition of an island:

“To qualify as one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River bordering Canada and the United States, an island should be over one square foot in size, be above water three hundred sixty-five days a year, and support at least one tree.”.

Yet there was a different opinion in Scotland:

“The definition of an island in a Scottish census taken in 1861 required that an island must support at least one person and one sheep. In this case, trees were not a requirement.”

Chamberlin quoted the poetry of E. J. Pratt often, as well as Rex Murphy and Northrop Frye. I was pleased to find so many Canadian references.

Tristan da Cunha, by the way, was mentioned twice in Island. The first was merely a name-drop in the introduction, The second was a paragraph about the evacuation of Tristan in 1961. While I was on the island I let my isolation fantasies take over. At times when I want to be alone, or when I have the dictatorial fantasy of banishing those who annoy me, I will think of this, the best line in the entire book:

“Islands are good places to send people you never want to see again–and they are also good places to go if you never want to see people again.”

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