Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Un-Discovered Islands - Malachy Tallack

An archipelago of myths and mysteries, phantoms and fakes... I had this book when it first came out in hardback with beautiful illustrations by Katie Scott. It was a lovely thing, but large, and in the end I passed it on to someone with children who I knew would actively enjoy it on a regular basis.

A few weeks ago Polygon books offered me the new paperback edition, and I said yes because I love maps, and islands, and myths. I also like pocket sized paperbacks a lot, but even so I wasn't prepared for the difference formatting would make to this book. The large hardback is the sort of book I remember pulling off my parents bookshelves to look at when I was quite young, there were only 3 channels on television, and everything was shut on a Sunday. The hours spent in those books were magical, and I doubt that children have changed that much in the intervening years, even if the jumping off point for their imaginations is more digital now. 

The small smart paperback version is full of old maps from when people believed in these phantom islands. Old maps where familiar places aren't quite the right shape, or are missing, or indeed added, are another thing I really like. There's something compelling about these maps which are presented as known fact, more or less in good faith, and yet are not. Even more compelling is how long some of these islands were disputed over for. Some even into this century - which holds out a tantalizing possibility that there are still things to be discovered. Or un-discovered.

There are other things about the layout and production of this book that really appeal to me as well - it's a beautifully presented thing, with nice details at the head of each chapter, and it's exactly the right size to fit in a pocket. It makes it a suitable book to travel with and pick up at odd moments as well as to travel in. For a year where we can't actually go very far a book that explores places that don't actually exist is perfect. 

When I first read this I was also looking at the really amazing "Scotland: Mapping the Islands" part of a two volume set which looked at how Scotland came to be mapped and understood. This year I'm hoping for the new Gavin Francis book "Island Dreams", and in both cases 'The Un-Discovered Islands" is an excellent companion to them. 

Tallack's book is full of concise chapters that impart quite a lot of information in a really accessible way. It's a gateway for further reading and research and added another layer of context to the Mapping the Islands book. I'm really pleased to have another copy, this one won't be given away, I'm keeping it to feed my own imagination.

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