Austin Tappan Wright's "Islandia"
July 18, 2011 7:40 PM   Subscribe

Cult books come and cult books go - that's part of what it means to be a cult book. A few keep reappearing, however. They get discovered over and over by successive waves of admirers. After the third or fourth reappearance, the suspicion begins to arise that this isn't a cult book, after all. It's a masterpiece with problems. Islandia is such a book. - Noel Perrin, "The Best of All Imaginary Islands"

As he grew, so did his imaginary world. ... It dropped the castles. It kept the horses - but they were no longer part of the romantic imaginings of a small boy. They were part of the utopian vision of a fully mature man, one who has thought out the relationship between speed of travel and meaning of journey. It gathered a two-thousand-year history, a complete sociology, a stunning cast of characters, a theory of how human beings can best lead satisfying lives. In the end, Islandia became the best vision I know of a life in which high culture coexists with low technology...
posted by Trurl (15 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I'm woefully under-read, but Islandia most reminds me of Lawrence Durrell's writing. There are also some sequels that were written by Wright's editor, Mark Saxton.
posted by Nomyte at 7:46 PM on July 18, 2011

Fascinating. I'd never heard of this. I love strange art outliers like this and look forward to reading the book.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:03 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I attempted this novel once, and found it impenetrable. But I may have simply been too young to appreciate it. Thanks for reminding me of it!
posted by lhauser at 8:22 PM on July 18, 2011

To this day, when I hear "Some Kinds Of Love" by the Velvet Underground, I think "apia, amia, alia."
posted by doubtfulpalace at 8:29 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Never heard of this, thanks.
Just did a big used-bookstore run this afternoon, but I'll put this on my list for my inevitable stock up next month. Is it hard to find?
posted by mannequito at 8:29 PM on July 18, 2011

Is it hard to find?

Overlook Press did a re-release sometime in the early oughts and Amazon says it's still in print, so you should be able to order a copy if you can't find it on a shelf. It's a fantastic book.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:36 PM on July 18, 2011

I attempted this novel once, and found it impenetrable.

It took me two goes, but the second time I devoured it. Shit, now I really really want to read it again and I HAVE NO TIME.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:38 PM on July 18, 2011

This was a wild book. Reading this around the same time as the Gormenghast trilogy warped my mind.
posted by chinston at 8:49 PM on July 18, 2011

I read this in high school (usually while stoned) and loved it at the time (which was likely the pot's doing.) What I remember of it now seems somewhat dated in a vaguely discomfiting 19th-century liberal-imperial colonialist way (the brief, dismissive mentions of the native population over the mountains: a veiled reference to Maori or Bantu peoples? Was Wright actually admiring South Africa or the then largely rural New Zealand, which hasn't had a great history of upholding its main treaty with the Maori?) The vaguely Jeffersonian extolling of the virtues of a rural-oriented society appealed to me back then, but I've since become an unapologetic cosmopolitan urbanite.

Still, maybe worth a second look.
posted by Philofacts at 10:00 PM on July 18, 2011

I'm pretty sure I have had a mostly-unread copy of this for the better part of a decade, but forgot about it until I read this post. Maybe it's time I give it another go.
posted by brennen at 10:07 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interesting, never heard of this. It sounds very similar to Samuel Butler's 1872 classic Erewhon.
posted by jet_manifesto at 3:56 AM on July 19, 2011

What I remember of it now seems somewhat dated in a vaguely discomfiting 19th-century liberal-imperial colonialist way

Perrin addresses the "blackness" of the bad guys as a potential stumbling block. From his description, its objectionability seems in the neighborhood of Peter Jackson's Skull Island. Which is to say: Not pleasant to dwell on, but only a deal-breaker if one is determined to make it so. YMMV.
posted by Trurl at 5:42 AM on July 19, 2011

Islandia may be the most important book in my life. I still feel that an agrarian society somewhat like Islandia's would be a better place to live and would cultivate a culture based on values other than money. How did businessmen become the leaders and role models and symbols of success in our world? I continue to be astonished at the importance and relevance we attribute to this one area of human endeavor. Islandians thought about the shape of the land and the consequences of their actions as they built a stone wall slowly (knowing that their grandchildren might finish it) or planted a tree. They saw the folly of needing to get things done fast.

Wright's vision was imperfect; the system seemed feudal and possibly elitist, the nearest enemy was dark-skinned, and I can't remember if women enjoyed perfect equality. Still, what a way to live!

I used to chase copies of this book all over New England since it was out of print. One day a friend gave me a first edition copy he had found for 50 cents at a yard sale. Another time, a new paperback edition was "found" behind the bookstore shelves. Thanks for the post.
posted by Hobgoblin at 7:52 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started reading Islandia several years ago -- based on that Noel Perrin essay -- but couldn't get into it. Thanks for posting this, I think I'll give it another shot.
posted by cog_nate at 8:15 AM on July 19, 2011

I remember hearing about Islandia in the Society for Utopian Studies, but still haven't read the thing. Thanks for the pointer.

Interesting background from the bio link:
After his death, Wright's widow taught herself to type and organized a two-thousand page novel from his papers. Her daughter edited the typescript to just over a thousand pages and persuaded Farrar & Rinehart to publish Islandia

Sounds like those two women are really co-authors.
posted by doctornemo at 2:02 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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