‘its shape is both strange and marvellous…’

DSCF4532A couple of weeks ago I posted a picture with this book in. Maria asked me about it, and other people expressed an interest, and I’ve been meaning to take photos of the inside, but it’s been all dark and dingy and they all come out looking murky and horrible. Fortunately for all of us, someone else has more sunshine and has taken some proper photos – take a peek here.

‘This place is a topographical disaster. Everything has been arbitrarily hurled into the ocean; the ground is rutted, downward sloping and hostile’

This comes under the heading of Fabulous Books You’d Never Buy For Yourself. As always, they’re beautiful to hold and to flick through, and they look great on the bookshelf. They’re usually what’s referred to in my family as a ‘dippy book’ – a book you don’t read cover to cover, but dip into, preferably with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and usually while you’re meant to be doing something else (or is that just me?)

‘In a small town in the foothills of the Vosges, a six-year-old boy is visited by dreams in which he is taught a completely unknown language…’

This one was a present from my auntie, Auntie Lou, who is our family’s resident book enthusiast. She always bought us books for Christmas and birthdays, whether we wanted them or not, and she’s bought me many a book that I’ve read over and over and over.

‘Just before the end of the world is nailed down with boards, the last post in the known world is an island in the far north, where the sea is so wild and forbidding that no one wants to travel there, a day’s journey away from where the seas flow into each other…’

Are you a traveller? I confess I’m not. I’ve never really longed to be somewhere else. I love the seaside, of course, and adventures, especially if they involve trains, but I’m most happy if I can be back home in time for tea.

‘The Banabans’ most important tool is made of wild almond wood and sharpened turtle shell. It is used to tattoo the skin with ink made of a dark paste of coconut ash mixed with salt and fresh water…’

Auntie Lou inspired a longing to visit Orkney though, by buying me this book many years ago. I don’t know what it was that caught my imagination, but something did, and when I got chance, I skipped off up there with my bicycle and my tent and spent a week buying books and drinking tea and getting thoroughly cold and wet.

I’ve been back six times now, the last few times taking Peter with me, and we were fortunate enough to meet the lovely Fay, who actually lives in Orkney (can you even imagine??)

‘Its shape is both strange and marvellous…’

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes – islands, and this book, which is a strange celebration of tiny remote islands that you’d probably never visit, but somehow it’s good to know they exist.

It’s not a practical book. Someone I know is off to St Helena soon, and the book says:

‘In the pouring rain, a procession of forty-three carries his sarcophagus to the road, where it is heaved on to a wagon and covered with a purple pall embroidered with golden bees and majuscule Ns.’

But it is a book to get lost in, to imagine what life would be like living somewhere so remote it takes several days to get there from a place the rest of us might consider to be the end of the world. (Actually, when I wrote about how much I love reading newspapers from small communities, a friend told me she regularly reads the Tristran Times, online newspaper for Tristran da Cunha, just to be nosey about what life is like there. I’m so glad it’s not just me).

‘The law of this snow dome land is simple and bold. Everyone is equal, everything is shared, and a marvellous patriarch oversees everything…. whoever runs aground here and wishes to stay must tell the story of his life as if it were the story of a stranger…’

I have no idea whether half the things in the book are even true. Some of it sounds so made up that it must be true.

‘Even the pigs on the island are black and white. It is as if they have been made specially for the seventy five people of Pingelap who see no colour…’

I don’t care. It’s enough for me to look at a map (ah, maps! an enthusiasm for another day I think), just a small shape in a page of empty sea, to look at the place names, the mountains, and see that this island is precisely 3,770km from somewhere else I’ve never heard of.

I’m not sure it’s possible to buy this book for yourself. I think you might need to persuade someone to buy it for you. Its sheer uselessness makes it the perfect Christmas present.

‘Exile to this paradise is the harshest punishment for a criminal…’

Do you idle away your hours reading books like this too? What’s your favourite?

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4 Responses to ‘its shape is both strange and marvellous…’

  1. Lorraine says:

    I’m not a map enthusiast and geography isn’t really my thing, but I do have a fantastic dictionary collection that I spend many hours browsing through!

  2. Robyn says:

    Oh dear….now where should I start? Well on topic, I guess, with “The Islands of western Scotland” – a 1973 volume dealing with everything from ancient history to current (ha ha) political matters. Utterly useless as it is so out of date, but somewhat fascinating nonetheless.
    For my second offering (and this could end up with a blog post all of its own) I’ll mention The Readers Digest Complete Atlas of the British Isles – a charity shop find which we paid about Ā£3 for, its uncertain date makes it all the more interesting. In fact the maps are the least of the book, with more than half of it given over to such vital statistics as population figures for all manner of areas, beautifully coloured maps showing where the hot seats of various religions were around the country, from Jews to Mormans, and all sorts of geographical and natural history to boot. THE most fantastic book, I’ve just asked MrEH to get it down from the shelf and he’s now buried in it…which is precisely what happens every time it gets brought down. if I can’t stay awake at work tomorrow, I shall blame YOU!

  3. Maria says:

    Oh how lovely! Thank you Jenni for an extended post on this lovely book šŸ™‚ I feel very flattered if my and others’ comments brought this on. It’s very interesting hearing how a book sparked your interest in Orkney, so much so that you’ve now been 6 times! I do love islands, especially Scottish ones lately – Skye anyone?
    I agree that this is the kind of book one wouldn’t buy for oneself… although that might mean I have to cheekily point some people to this blog šŸ™‚

  4. Katherine says:

    My favourite quirky book is Attention All Shipping – an adventure literally around the shipping forecast. Some fantastic stories, and great for armchair travelling šŸ™‚ If I’m not sure what to buy someone for a present, it’s often what I choose.

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