Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield
Best for: People who enjoy books on world curiosities that don’t focus on making fun of or judging individuals. People who like books with three-four page chunks that can be read at once.
In a nutshell: The authors provide quick backgrounds on 51 places spread (very inequitably) across six continents, divided into categories of Dream Creations, Deserted Destinations, Architectural Oddities, Floating Worlds, Otherworldly Spaces, and Subterranean Realms.
Why I chose it: I’m always looking for places to add to my list of things I want to see in person. Plus, I like to learn about ostensibly weird shit.
When I was a teenager, my family took a trip to the pacific northwest, and went on the Underground Tour in Seattle. For those not familiar, part of the city closest to the water was raised at least a full story after a fire destroyed a bunch of buildings, putting shops and residences that were once at street-level down a dozen feet. The tour takes people through reconstructed older facades, and points out that the purple glass we walk over at street level was a way to allow light down to the still-functioning buildings below. I was fascinated.
A decade ago my sister and I visited Berlin and went on a tour of underground bunkers. I believe I found this one because, again, I like history but also unexpected and potentially weird things.
Neither of those items are listed in this book, but they aren’t that far off. The book includes some fantastical places (Hearst Castle), some disturbing ones — especially if you don’t like dolls — (Isla de las Muñecas), some truly bizarre ones (Darvata), and some sad ones (Oradur-sur-Glane). I’d only heard of maybe three of the places discussed in the book, and I want to go visit at least a few of them.
The book was generally good, but I have a couple of complaints keeping it from hitting five stars. The first is the distribution of sites. It felt a bit lazy to have so many concentrated in North America and Europe. There were also many in Asia, but only one in Africa, two in South America, and two in Oceania (and the one in Africa is mostly a criticism of art, which felt a bit off). The other is if you’re going to make a book focused on fascinating places, your pictures NEED TO BE IN FULL COLOR. I know it’s way expensive. But black and white photos do not in any way capture the vast majority of these locations. I finally had to just look up each place on my phone as I read a chapter. That seems unnecessary. Even with those two complaints, however, I would still recommend this book.
(I couldn’t help but think about the town of Paradise, California, as I read this book. Many, though not all, are abandoned spaces; some are that was as the result of some natural or unnatural disaster. And I wonder: in fifty years, will parts of the now-destroyed city in Northern California be added to this book? Or will they be featured in a different book, one focused on how cities can rebuild?)