|Right: The original plain white cover. Left: The cover of my first book fell off, so I made a new cover for it.
Last night I didn’t have anything prepared for this week’s blog post. My conversational fallback is to talk about the weather. Hoping to avoid a weather report, I came up with this essay. We’ll save the weather for another post.
It's funny the little things I remember, when as a general rule, I forget everything. For instance, I understand that I lived throughout the 1980’s – but I don’t think I've any authentic, first person memories of doing so. I can work out what I was doing during those ten years – sort of – and from that knowledge I can reconstruct some incidents from that era – as in I know I had to have done this or that. But I gather that most people are able to actually relive, in their minds, hours and hours of actual incidents from their past. I’ve never been able to do that for that reason. So it is remarkable when I do remember an incident at all. Indeed, I based one of my novels, Sailing to Redoubt, on a remembered dream from when I had to have been five to seven years old. Which brings me around to the subject of this post: Islandia.
I have a distinct memory of picking up and looking over the book pictured above (on the right): Austin Tappan Wright’s utopian/fantasy/make-believe world Islandia. I have no idea why I remember doing so. Though to be clear I remember doing it -- I can't recall the actual scene. The memory goes back to 1966 when this version was released. I know that it wasn’t in the usual card shop where I purchased most of my books back in those days, so it must have been a book shop -- Walden’s? or B Dalton?
As you can see, the cover is plain white (ala White Album?) with the title and the blurb “One of the great “underground” novels of the twentieth century.” It was a big thick book – 944 pages thick. The back cover, like the front cover had the title, some blurbs from the New Your Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and Orville Prescott, whoever he was. Plus a brief synopsis;
“ISLANDIA has been an underground classic for over two decades. Signet’s republication of this great book brings before the public one of the most staggering feats of literary creation – a detailed history of an imagined country and a young American’s adventure there… among the people he met and the women he loved.
THE SPELL OF ISLANDIA IS POWERFUL. As Norman Cousins described the book’s power in The Saturday Review: “Islandia, like life, was real; Islandia was earnest. Little by little it became recognized for the miracle it was.”
I considered buying it, but in the end passed on it – it was probably in the science fiction section, or I would never have come across it, but it wasn’t science fiction enough for me to plunk down the $1.25 (when most paperbacks were $.50 - $.75) back then.
But, for some reason I never forgot it. And perhaps 12 years later, I'm vague on the date, but I know the place, I came across a copy of it in Oklahoma Street Library, pulled it off the shelf and started reading it. It wasn’t my local library so I couldn’t take it home, but once again, strangely enough I remembered the incident.
A few years later, likely in the early 1980’s I think that I found a copy of it at the annual Bethesda Fair rummage sale, and this time purchased it, though I’m not certain about that. All I actually remember is spending my evenings for at least a week traveling through Islandia with a bowl of popcorn at hand. It’s a little bit slow at the beginning, but it slowly draws you deeper and deeper into its world, more real than any other imaginary setting that I’ve ever read.
|One of Wright's maps of the Karin Continent. Islandia is on the top, the dark black area in the small map, with the shaded areas showing areas of European influence and concessions.
Islandia was Wright’s imaginary world, a world that he had spent his life imagining. Islandia was a country at the northern end of an imaginary continent called Karin in the South Atlantic Ocean. He created its history, its language, is geography and geology. It was probably as real to him as his “real” life. In writing this account of a young American discovering his strange and wonderful land, he draws us into his all-but-real world. Perhaps because this was his private make believe world, not something he thought up for a book, there is an authenticity to it that you can feel.
The book was only published after his death. The manuscript, of nearly 600,000 words that he had left behind, was edited down by about 1/3rd. As his daughter wrote in the introduction, “....my father knew the exact lineaments of every scene John Lang saw down to its geological causes, and enjoyed describing such things.” He also wrote a 135,000 word history of Islandia., plus a large volume of appendices to the history, including a glossary of the Islandian language; a bibliography; several tables of population; a gazetteer of the provinces with a history of each; tables of viceroys, judges, premiers, etc., a complete historical peerage; notes on the calendar and climate; a few specimens of Islandian literature, 19 maps, and one geological map.
You can find a complete review of the book here: Islandia Review
|A map of Islandia, though hard to read.
I believe that I’ve read the entire book twice. Maybe I’ll travel to Islandia again some day. But it’s a place I know I’ve visited, even if I can’t remember it all. However, I will say this; the book has, in my opinion, one flaw. As it says on the back cover “Islandia, like life, was real; Islandia was earnest.” I don’t recall one humorous scene in the entire 944 pages. It is an earnest book.