Escaping the Mainland

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
By Gavin Francis
231 pp. Cannon Gate. $30.

I’m an admitted isle-o-phile/islomaniac/lover of islands — whatever term gets the message across best — so books about islands are absolutely my cup of tea. But who doesn’t love a good island? Who doesn’t pine to get away to some isolated spit of land jutting out of a remote corner of the ocean at least some of the time?

What is it about islands that we all find so appealing, then?

For me, I think it’s the lack of options. Or rather, the finitude of the land, of the possibilities, laid out before you. Which is why I prefer smaller islands to big ones. When it comes to islands at least, I find that size does matter.

Remoteness obviously plays a part as well, the role of the island as an isolated utopia. An island accessible only by sea is infinitely preferable to one you can hop a plane to.

And to think that being marooned was historically a bad thing. That the ship would leave you, typically with all manner of supplies to help you on, and then set off without you? Think about how much people would to have a similar experience these days! To be “stranded” all alone on an island. To truly get away from it all.

Aren’t we all drawn to islands because they signify just that sort of escape? Because they represent an outlet from which to flee society?

Don’t we all envy Robinson Crusoe a bit? Don’t we pine — at least a little bit — to wash up on a desert island à la Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”? Isn’t that the life our spirits actually crave?

We all crave the simplicity of the island because, for many of us, the mainland has left us wanting.

An island is a lessening of the burden that is life, or at least of life in a capitalistic society. Because what is life on the American mainland if not an unending series of decisions — where to go to school, where to live, who to love, what to wear, what laundry detergent to buy — and it never stops until you die. But an island in the classical sense — not in the “holiday package tour” sense in which the island acts as merely an extension of capitalistic society — is a drastic shrinking of those choices, a forced reduction in the options we are daily confronted with.

Crest! No, Colgate! Wait, Tom’s!

None of it matters, and yet our mental capacity is constantly taken up with wading through this sort of meaningless minutiae.

What to order? Where to vacation? When to retire?

While reading “Island Dreams” I ruminated on some of these questions and others. It’s a beautiful book, one full of ruminations, of fleeting thoughts and half-remembered pasts. It is exactly the kind of book I enjoy reading more and more these days — one not burdened by a narrative but not hampered by the lack of one either.

It is a book to muse in. To think, as you read, about anything and everything. To go where the words take you.


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