Every book is an island that exists only in the mind of its writer, and the hope of every writer is that you will visit their island and be glad you did. But in The Faraway Nearby, her book about how we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, narrative and imagination, Rebecca Solnit says,
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read. And its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds and the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”
I think of books as islands, but Rebecca Solnit thinks of them as sheet music, or as seeds. I followed that trail of thought until I realized that she and I had simply discovered different metaphors to describe how books are literary portals of escape into alternate realities.
Bored with my navel-gazing, I decided to search the 5,067 passages in the random quotes database at MondayMorningMemo.com to see how many other writers had spoken of islands. So I logged into the admin section, typed the word “island” into the search window, and was delighted to find that I had transcribed “island” passages from no fewer than a dozen of my favorite authors.
“Something of the sense of holiness on islands comes, I think, from this strange, elastic geography. Islands are made larger, paradoxically, by the scale of the sea that surrounds them. The element which might reduce them, which might be thought to besiege them, has the opposite effect. The sea elevates these few acres into something they would never be if hidden in the mass of the mainland. The sea makes islands significant.”
– Adam Nicolson, Sea Room
From 1888 until his death in 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the South Seas. The diary of his island travels was published immediately after his death.
“Few men who come to the islands leave them; they grow grey where they alighted; the palm shades and the trade-wind fans them till they die, perhaps cherishing to the last the fancy of a visit home, which is rarely made, more rarely enjoyed, and yet more rarely repeated. No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travelers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore, of many hundred thousand persons, some of our own blood and language, all our contemporaries, and yet as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars.”
Three years later, Mary Kingsley spoke of her Travels in West Africa, an 1897 bestseller.
“Once a hippopotamus and I were on an island together, and I wanted one of us to leave. I preferred it should be myself, but the hippo was close to my canoe, and looked like staying, so I made cautious and timorous advances to him and finally scratched him behind the ear with my umbrella and we parted on good terms. But with the crocodile it was different….”
But 30 years before Robert Louis Stevenson or Mary Kingsley wrote about their islands, Mark Twain had a few words to say about the proposed US annexation of the Sandwich Islands.
“When these islands were discovered the population was about 400,000, but the white man came and brought various complicated diseases, and education, and civilization, and all sorts of calamities, and consequently the population began to drop off with commendable activity. Forty years ago they were reduced to 200,000, and the educational and civilizing facilities being increased they dwindled down to 55,000, and it is proposed to send a few more missionaries and finish them. It isn’t the education or civilization that has settled them; it is the imported diseases, and they have all got the consumption and other reliable distempers, and to speak figuratively, they are retiring from business pretty fast. When they pick up and leave we will take possession as lawful heirs.”
In his book, Marina, Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes of a strange island in the heart of Barcelona.
“The Sarrià cemetery is one of Barcelona’s best-hidden corners. If you look for it on the maps, you won’t find it. If you ask locals or taxi drivers how to get there, they probably won’t know, although they’ve all heard about it. And if, by chance, you try to look for it on your own, you’re more likely than not to get lost. The lucky few who know the secret of its whereabouts suspect that this old graveyard is in fact an island lost in the ocean of the past, which appears and disappears at random.”
“The memories of hundreds of people lie here. Their lives, their feelings, their expectations, their absence, the dreams that never came through for them, the disappointments, the deceptions and the unrequited loves that poisoned their existence… All that is here, trapped forever.”
And then we have the laughable, lovable wit of Bill Bryson in his book, At Home.
“Columbus’s real achievement was managing to cross the ocean successfully in both directions. Though an accomplished enough mariner, he was not terribly good at a great deal else, especially geography, the skill that would seem most vital in an explorer. It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence. He spent large parts of eight years bouncing around Caribbean islands and coastal South America convinced that he was in the heart of the Orient and that Japan and China were at the edge of every sunset. He never worked out that Cuba is an island and never once set foot on, or even suspected the existence of, the landmass to the north that everyone thinks he discovered: the United States.”
Eighty years ago, John Steinbeck published Sea of Cortez, the travelogue of an ocean journey with Ed Ricketts, his best friend.
“The Western Flyer hunched into the great waves toward Cedros Island, the wind blew off the tops of the whitecaps, and the big guy wire, from bow to mast, took up its vibration like the low pipe on a tremendous organ. It sang its deep note into the wind.”
In his book, The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux wrote about two kinds of islands.
“Alert but detached, Bowles was reclining on a pallet in his heavily curtained bedroom, overheated by a primitive heater, a blowtorch attached to a gas canister. He liked the heat, had once spent his winters on a Sri Lankan island he had purchased. And now in this small hot room, with the shades drawn, he was on another island. No living space could have been smaller than this back room where he obviously lived and worked; he ate here, he wrote here, he slept here. His books, his music, his medicine. His world had shrunk to these walls. But that was merely the way it seemed…. His world was within his mind, and his imagination was vast.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the mother of a 20-month-old son that was famously kidnapped and murdered, later wrote,
“I feel we are all islands – in a common sea.”
But she was contradicted 300 years earlier by the most famous island quote of all.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
– John Donne, 1624, Meditation XVII
But my favorite island quote comes from the wonderful Walt Disney, who said,
“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”
Amen, Walt. Amen.
Roy H. Williams
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