The Book…According to Gavin Francis


‘And so I wanted to write a book that mapped the tension, the creative tension, between those extremes: island and city, isolation and connection. And along the way exploring the rich history of island literature.’

Gavin Francis is an adventurer and has written of his travels in his excellent Empire Antarctica and True North. His new book, Island Dreams explores our fascination with islands, and we caught up with him to chat about another fascination – books.


Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
By Gavin Francis
Published by Canongate


The book as . . . memory. What is your first memory of books and reading?

Where The Wild Things Are, with my mum – doesn’t everyone dream of being able to sail off to an island world, have dramas and high risk adventures, but be home in time for supper?


The book as . . . your work. Tell us about your latest book Island Dreams. Is there something in particular you’re setting out to explore?

The allure of isolated places – from Greenland to Antarctica, from the Galapagos to the Andaman Islands, has long animated my travels and my choices in life.  But so has the city and all of its possibilities for connection and cross-fertilisation of ideas.  My profession for the last twenty years has been medicine and there’s no better work for someone fascinated by what connects people in all their diversity.  But I’ve also worked as an expedition doctor in some of the most remote parts of the planet, and as a nature warden on island bird reserves in Scotland.  And so I wanted to write a book that mapped the tension, the creative tension, between those extremes: island and city, isolation and connection.  And along the way exploring the rich history of island literature.


The book as . . . object. What is your favourite beautiful book?

The Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543) is a phenomenal work, seven volumes of beautiful engravings that revealed the elegance and beauty of the human body, just under the skin, for the first time.

And of course the Times Atlas of the World.  In times of pandemic lockdown it’s a consolation to be able to go atlas-travelling until the real thing once again becomes possible.


The book as . . . inspiration. What is your favourite book that has informed how you see yourself?

Which aspect of the self?  Every book I’ve ever read has had that power.  Like everyone else, different books have all inspired aspects of the many roles I inhabit, whether it’s as a doctor, a writer, a traveller, a scientist, or even as a father.


The book as . . . a relationship. What is your favourite book that bonded you to someone else?

John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man, about a country GP in 1960s Gloucestershire, has offered deepening friendships with others who also love that book, and those with whom I’ve shared it.  But I’m also grateful to it for igniting my own friendship with Berger.  I wrote to him about another of his books, Cataract, we struck up a correspondence, and he invited me to stay with him in Paris. Our conversations led to me writing the introduction to the new edition of the book (Canongate, 2015), through which I hope many other readers will come to know it.


The book as . . . entertainment. What is your favourite rattling good read?

Elena Ferrante!  The world she created is utterly immersive and compelling.  Also Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.  Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books.  Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.  I could go on…


The book as . . . a destination. What is your favourite book set in a place unknown to you?

I love Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, a novel set between Eastern Europe, the Aegean islands and Canada.  Canada I don’t know at all, and the Aegean and Eastern Europe I have visited only briefly.  But the ‘destination’ is less important as a set of geographical coordinates than feeling at home in an author’s writing.  I have read WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn ‘about’ Norfolk numerous times, but know that in the future I’ll go on visiting it through his eyes, not my own.  Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost is good on this – the writing as an exploration of an idea rather than the exploration of a place.


The book as . . . the future. What are you looking forward to reading next?

So many… Like all your bibliophile readers my bedside table is always stacked high.  It’s a pleasure to know that beautiful, inspirational books that I’ll come to love are being written right now and I don’t even know yet how much I’ll need them in my life!


Visit Gavin Francis’s website


Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession by Gavin Francis is published by Canongate, priced £20.00.


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