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Island: How Islands Transform the World

Island: How Islands Transform the World

by J. Edward Chamberlin

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Island tells the groundbreaking story of humans and islands throughout history, and illuminates the ways in which islands transform the world. It celebrates islands, be they real or imagined, barren or beautiful, large or small, as a central part of our lives.


Island tells the groundbreaking story of humans and islands throughout history, and illuminates the ways in which islands transform the world. It celebrates islands, be they real or imagined, barren or beautiful, large or small, as a central part of our lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this ambitious book about the lives and influence of islands, Chamberlin (Horse: How the Horse Shaped Civilization) delivers a head-spinning mashup of navigational history, mythology, crash-course geology, poetry, and pop culture. Each of the five sections is introduced with excerpts from the 1830 Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, invoking a time when “authoritative atlases and encyclopedias... were often either apologetically vague or absolutely wrong.” From there, Chamberlin, a professor at the University of Toronto, maps the wonders of Polynesia and the Galápagos Islands, the differences between Polynesian and European navigation techniques, the strange emergence of Surtsey island in Iceland in 1963, famous seafarers, literary isles and their inhabitants (like Prospero and Robinson Crusoe), and many more compelling facts and histories. Early on in the outing, the author makes clear his goal: to show how islands “define what it is to be human.” It’s an admirable if hyperbolic effort. Unfortunately, a lack of cohesion and clarity of purpose will leave readers feeling lost at sea, with little more than Chamberlin’s giddy sense of wonder to guide them. It’s a fun and interesting trip, but it never arrives at its port of call. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In his latest book, Chamberlin (English & comparative literature, emeritus, Univ. of Toronto; Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations) approaches his vast subject, the islands of the world, from every angle, peering at islands from perspectives as far off as ancient maps that speculated on the location and geography of many islands, and also examining aspects as intimate as the creation myths of certain island dwellers. This is a sweeping (some may find rambling) series of anecdotes and particulars about islands including, among others, Jamaica, Newfoundland, and Hawaii. Chamberlin is passionate about his study and has collected facts about everything from the native flora and fauna of the Galápagos to the history of the types of vessels used to travel to and from the Polynesian islands. The work is perhaps not focused enough to be used well by scholars, but island lovers of all sorts may find in it some new knowledge to delight them. VERDICT A loosely structured wealth of information for island enthusiasts.—Elizabeth Winter, Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
A delightful, enlightening book that employs islands as jumping-off points for essays on a wide range of topics from A(nthropology) to Z(oology). Chamberlin (Emeritus, English and Comparative Literature/Univ. of Toronto; A Covenant in Wonder with the World, 2012, etc.) introduces each of his island narratives with a bit of history: an entry from the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia of 1830, followed by an excerpt from some early observer's commentary. Then, there's no telling where he may take us. The principal islands featured here are Jamaica, Tahiti, Iceland, the Galápagos and Newfoundland, but there are dozens of others, near and far, small and large, real and imaginary. His chapter on Jamaica expands from landscape and people into culture, myths, language, why settlers came there and the larger question of why populations migrate. From Tahiti, Chamberlin launches into the remarkable prowess of Polynesian sailors, the hazards of ocean navigating and the reactions of early European explorers. Iceland leads to a discussion of volcanoes, the appearance and disappearance of islands, and the shifting of tectonic plates. Not surprisingly, the Galápagos chapter introduces the unique flora and fauna that shaped Darwin's thinking about the origin of species, and bleak, glacier-shaped Newfoundland offers a tale of a place whose once-rich fisheries have disappeared and where people are now asking themselves whether it is time to depart their desolate land. Some passages demand to be read aloud: lists of the names of plants and birds found in the Caribbean and a traditional Polynesian chant from Raiatea, near Tahiti, that directed early sailors on how to navigate their way across the Pacific. Islands in plays, novels and movies, islands in legend and history, and even planet Earth, that island we all inhabit, all are objects of wonder and speculation for Chamberlin, who asks us to think about what they mean to us and what they tell us about our world and about ourselves, our history and our future. A slim book that takes readers on a mind-expanding journey.
From the Publisher
"A delightful, enlightening book that employs islands as jumping-off points for essays on a wide range of topics from A(nthropology) to Z(oology)...A slim book that takes readers on a mind-expanding journey."—KIRKUS REVIEWS

"...Chamberlin approaches his vast subject, the islands of the world, from every angle...[a] wealth of information for island enthusiasts."—LIBRARY JOURNAL

"The wealth of fascinating detail makes for an instructive and entertaining read."—HISTORICAL NOVELS REVIEW

"Chamberlin's *Island* is an extremely pleasant read. Elegant...there are serendipitous delights..."—THE SPECTATOR (U.K.)

Praise for Chamberlin's *Horse*:

“...a truly grand subject...a philosophical history and a lyrical essay.”—THE WASHINGTON POST

“Both as a genuine labor of love and awe and as a treasure trove of equinalia, Horse is bound to find many delighted fans.”—LOS ANGELES TIMES

“...a sweeping historical and cultural viewpoint.”—SUN SENTINEL

“...if you can’t own a horse or ride one, reading this book is a good second best. In fact, it might get you riding, so be careful.”—THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Product Details

Publication date:
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5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Islands are everywhere. There are islands in the middle of a lake, some sacred—such as Manitoulin in Lake Huron, the largest freshwater island in the world, or Isla del Sol, one of the forty or so islands in Lake Titicaca—and some sentimental, such as William Butler Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s St. Peter’s Island in Switzerland’s Lake Biel; others are dear to the hearts of those who live in or visit the lake regions of the world. There are islands in rivers and streams, some supporting great cities, like New York and Montreal, others shaping cultures, like Île de la Cité in Paris, and still others whose influence seems more modest, like the “smallest, barest island” in New England’s Merrimack River, which Henry David Thoreau described as having an “undefined and mysterious charm.” There are islands in between, such as the Canaries and the Azores, the Hebrides and the Faroes—those so-called stepping-stone islands in the Atlantic that offered relatively safe haven to early seafarers—or the chain of outcrops called Rama’s Bridge (or Adam’s Bridge) that links Sri Lanka to the mainland. There are islands in the deltas of the great rivers of Asia and Africa, like the Irrawaddy and the Zambezi, and islands where land and water are confused, like the muskeg islands at the edge of the boreal forest in Canada or the Sundarbans, the mangrove swamps in the Ganges Delta (which, according to one nineteenth-century observer, “looked as though this bit of world had been left unfinished when land and sea were originally parted”).

While many islands are out on the open ocean, all alone and far away from any other land—such as Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic and Easter Island in the Pacific—others are snuggled along the shore, like Haida Gwaii on Canada’s west coast, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the islands that shape Singapore and Hong Kong, Mumbai and Venice. Countless rock outcrops and coral atolls are uninhabited by humans, while large islands like Java and Japan have a population of over a hundred million each.

Altogether, about one billion people live on islands. They are often fiercely (if sometimes foolishly) independent. Nearly one quarter of the members of the United Nations are island nations, some of them as small as Nauru (once called the Pleasant Island) or Tuvalu (formerly known as the Ellice Islands) in the Pacific, each under ten square miles in total and with populations around ten thousand. Eleven of the world’s fifteen smallest countries are islands, including the Seychelles and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Malta in the Mediterranean, and several island nations in the Caribbean: Saint Kitts and Nevis; Grenada; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Antigua and Barbuda; and Barbados. (Their only mainland rivals for size are Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, and Liechtenstein.)

There are islands that limit us, and islands that liberate us; islands where love flourishes, and islands where hatred takes root; islands that hold us together, and islands that keep us apart. Some islands, special for spiritual reasons, are to be visited only by the elect; others are strictly reserved for prisoners. Some, with material resources, have been occupied by a few families for centuries, while other islands, with no resources at all, are now home to thousands of residents.

People have gone to war over islands, as they did with the Falklands and the island of Run (now part of Indonesia), which was the only source of the precious spice nutmeg during the seventeenth century. And islands have been instrumental in making peace: the British ceded the very same Run to the Dutch in 1667 in exchange for Manhattan, and France traded its part of Canada (and more) to Britain in 1763 in order to secure Guadeloupe and Martinique—because of the islands’ sugar cane.

Many islands stay put, like sentinels of the sea and guardians of the straight and narrow, and others move about with the wind or the current or the quirks of fate, like the Flemish sandbanks and Sable Island (off the coast of Nova Scotia) and the floating islands of roots and vegetation in the Florida Everglades and in the Tigris–Euphrates Delta. Some islands disappear and reappear—the Halligen islands in the North Sea during stormy season, Falcon Island in the Pacific once in a volcanic blue moon—while others can be reached on foot, but only at low tide. And there have been man-made islands for thousands of years, from the crannogs in ancient Ireland and Scotland to the prehistoric villages built on stilts in Alpine lakes.

There are islands we escape to—and islands we escape from. Some of them are real, and some are imagined. When mapmaking became a cultural tradition—especially in Europe and Asia—as well as a travel guide, plenty of imaginary islands appeared on these “real” maps. Commerce played a big role in this. No one ever landed on the mythical island of Buss in the North Atlantic, for example, but it was still charted on maps and even chartered to the Hudson’s
Bay Company to harvest furs. Such islands are both there and not there—like stories. “It was, and it was not” is the phrase used by storytellers on the island of Majorca when they begin. Maybe stories themselves began with islands, for islands have fascinated people as long as they have been singing songs and telling tales and traveling, and have found counterparts in the islands that are our homes and gardens and towns and farms, as well as our personalities. For millennia, seafarers and settlers and storytellers have sought out islands for reasons that go deep into the human psyche and haunt its imagination, even—or sometimes especially—when ignorant of geography. It may have something to do with the way an island rises up from the sea and then sooner or later disappears again, perhaps invoking a primordial consciousness of the beginning and the end of life. Or it may be connected to the journey between the mainland and an island, and between one island and another, requiring the crossing of water. This has haunted humans since time immemorial; the word “metaphor,” the signature of stories and songs, means “to carry across.”

Islands have provided a special invitation to fertile imaginations, just as they did (in evolutionary theory) to unique mutations. There have been countless islands where marvelous—or malicious—things supposedly happened, and memorable islands that came into being as fiction took up history, with stories of true island adventures (survivor stories long before reality TV) sponsoring novels like Robinson Crusoe. Psychiatry began with an awareness of “islanded” psyches, and anthropology made islands an academic fetish (and a travel excuse), with island accounts beginning in the late nineteenth century by Arthur Haddon on the Torres Strait Islands and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown on the Andamans, and then by Bronislaw Malinowski on the Trobriand Islands and Margaret Mead on Samoa.

Islands represent both paradise and purgatory, just as they invoke madness and invite magic. They have been places where curious things occur—or where nothing at all takes place. But even then, the howling noises of the sea or the deep silence of a lake will often conjure up a sense of strangeness around islands, and generate stories about the unusual things that go on there. Many poets, from the Scandinavian skald to the Swahili sha’ir and from Homer (in the Odyssey) to Shakespeare (in The Tempest), have located some of their most intriguing stories on islands. Later, Jonathan Swift took readers to islands of wonderment on Gulliver’s travels, Alexandre Dumas to the treasure of Monte Cristo, and H. G. Wells to the menacing Island of Dr. Moreau. And they are certainly places where fabled creatures live: there are real islands with dragons, like Komodo in Indonesia, and imaginary islands with dragons, like those in the Chronicles of Narnia.

There are islands of solitude, and islands with a social life—though not always an easy one. So is the ultimate appeal of islands “home”—or “away”? Ideals of civilized life, domestic and settled, are routinely represented in island images, but so are concepts of the wild and the barbaric; and both of them may sustain the sense of community that islands often celebrate.

The history of islands is also the history of our planet, from its beginning as an island in space to its current position as part of the archipelago that is our solar system, and from the moment land first appeared above the waters that covered the earth to the contemporary appearance and disappearance of islands in the cycles of climate change and seismic upheaval that make up and break up our world.

All of which raises—or complicates—the question: What is an island? Is it simply land surrounded by water, which the etymology of the word in various languages suggests? Do tidal islands, and isolated peninsulas, qualify? How about man-made islands, like oil rigs or waterfront real estate developments—or castles surrounded by moats? Is size a factor, with small being beautiful? But then, what is it that a reef or a rock outcrop have in common with Greenland or New Guinea? And what about continents like Australia and Antarctica? Do geology and geography set the standard for island identity, or politics and economics? Are islands defined by their natural history—or by their human history?

One thing is certain: barren or beautiful, large or small, real or imagined, islands are a central part of the world we live in. They represent much of what we dread, and much of what we desire. And since so many of our thoughts and feelings have an island counterpart, they may well define what it is to be human.

Meet the Author

J. Edward Chamberlin is a professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, has lectured around the world, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies. He is the author of "Come Back to Me My Language"; "Horse"; and "If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?" He lives in British Columbia.

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