I bought this book in my last batch of pre-pandemic charity shop meandering and bulk book buying – the next acquisitions on the shelf are an online buy and a gift from June 2020 then charity shop books from the Opening Up, where I dared to pop in in July. So my TBR is a record of lockdown whether I intended that or not! This is one of the books I was reading as September turned into October and I was quite slow with it, not sure why as it was an engaging read. I think I was worried there might be icky bits of history so it was an upstairs not a mealtimes read.

Thurston Clarke – “Islomania”

(04 February 2020)

One of the rules of insular life is that once something arrives on an island it can stay for centuries. Large objects are difficult and costly to remove, and islanders are instinctive pack rats, so things that might be lost, junked, plowed under, paved over, or locked behind glass on a mainland are preserved on an island in an amber of water and isolation. (p. 158)

Clarke lives within sight of some quite normal islands on a lake but they exert a fascination on him and any guests as powerful as any South Sea paradise. He decides to go and visit some islands in various categories – types of islands (holy, scary, private, prison, utopian), islands he’s visited himself before, and famous islands (Isla Robinson Crusoe, the Spice Islands, Atlantis, etc.) – and works his way around them with a chapter on each. He’s an engaging companion and provides the right amount of history and modern travelogue (not that modern, actually, as it was published in 2001 – I would love an update on how some of these are doing).

He doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects – islands where the original inhabitants have been massacred, places run by a despot, islands destroyed by nuclear testing – but in general looks for good points, things he likes, important people who have had a positive influence on a place – and the odd eccentric, of course. He finds people who wouldn’t swap island life for luxuries and ease of buying stuff, and communities which have absorbed or rejected incomers. I found his return to Fishers Island, where he spent many youthful summers, with its careful study of what has happened to the people who live there all year as opposed to the holidaymakers, fascinating and moving.

Even half-way through his project, Clarke begins to find echoes and connections between the islands, and by the end he’s able to draw some interesting conclusions – I really like that he does this rather than just stopping dead, and he also gives an update here on what had gone on on some of the islands between him visiting them and writing the book. I also liked reading about some new places – I’d only really read about Svalbard to any great extent before.

An interesting read and I’m very glad I picked it up.