Literary Landscapes

Literary Landscapes: Charting the Worlds of Classic Literature
John Sutherland, general editor
Black Dog & Leventhal, 2018

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The parade of book-related books in 2018 has been longer and more impressive than in most previous years. The “Great American Read” Book of Books was a browser's paradise of national choices; reading memoirs like Jane Tompkins' Reading Through the Night, Anne Bogel's I'd Rather Be Reading, Sara Clarkson's Book Girl,and Karen Swallow Prior's On Reading Well have told riveting and heartwarming stories about the power of books to build a life, and illustrated bookish-surveys like Jane Mount's Bibliophile and James Mustich's Mount Everest of the sub-genre, 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die have presented themselves for inspection, admiration, and peevish argument. Joining this last category is Literary Landscapes: Charting the Worlds of Classic Literature, edited by the great John Sutherland and handsomely designed by Black Dog & Leventhal.

The book is gorgeously illustrated, wide-ranging, and very pleasingly idiosyncratic. Some old predictables are of course here – the Bath of Jane Austen, the Yorkshire moors of the Brontës, the Dorset of Thomas Hardy, the Mississippi River of Mark Twain, the London of Dickens, the Paris of Victor Hugo – but there are less-expected and equally-delightful entries, such as the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler or the Monroeville of To Kill a Mockingbird or the idyllic location of Elsa Morante's Arturo's Island.

Islands are a frequently recurring theme in the book, from the Pellinki Archipelago of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (“She loved the sea, and wrote to a friend, 'You become different and think new thoughts when you live a long time alone with the sea and yourself'”) to the Solovetsky Islands of The Gulag Archipelago. “Novelists love an island,” we're told. “Enclosed, easily mappable, small enough to hold conceptually in the mind, varied enough to allow plot developments and contrasting locations to echo emotions and moods.” The Uta-Jima of Mishima's 1954 novel The Sound of Waves is vividly evoked, although with its share of cliches:

Our hero, Shinji, is a fisherman, his routine controlled by the tides and the weather. He is a survivor, poverty stricken, living hand-to-mouth, just managing to keep his head above water. He falls for Hatsue, a pearl diver sent to another island for her apprenticeship … She in turn attracts Yasuo, son of the big fish in this small pond …

The book's most thought-provoking section is its last and longest, “Contemporary Geographies,” which explores the locations of a dozen modern novels, from the divided Berlin of Peter Schneider to the North Dakota of Louise Erdrich to the bygone Manhattan of Jay McInerney to the New Zealand of Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. Readers will be reminded throughout of what a vital role location plays in virtually everything they read, and the generous artwork of Literary Landscapes will help to send that reminder home.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.