Reading for pleasure is a beautiful thing. Reading for purpose is an entirely different, wonderful, and indispensable thing.
“Nowherelands–An Atlas of Vanished Countries” weaves together stamps, eyewitness testimony and historical interpretations to create a vibrant tapestry of the past. Any frayed ends are pressed together with the ethnography of Bjorn Berge- an author so passionate in his stamp collecting that, with a simple lick of the Cypher paper, he can taste the richness of the history it holds.
Nowherelands is, as it says on the tin; a non-fiction atlas of vanished countries. Fifty extinct nations from every corner of the world, with fifty unique stamps; each marked by thousands of hands, countless destinations, and the wear and tear of being trickled down generations — now sit in vibrantly coloured copies on the pages of this book. Berge invites us on a journey, an adventure transcending time and distance into the propaganda, failures, and treasons of past nations; resulting in their extinction. It challenges the idle thought that our very own countries, our homes, are set-in-stone, and prompts the realisation that every manufactured rule, nation, and region will eventually, extinguish itself.
But, through the power and beauty of literature, the story of each vanished nation lives on:
Each country is assigned a four-page spread. One of the countless surprises of this book is how much information fits perfectly into this frame. We start each adventure with an enticing title that makes perfect sense after reading the spread. Prime examples include: “Danzig: Sponge cake with Hitler” “Ryuku: Systematic suicide” “Orange Free State: Hymn-singing and racism” and my personal favourite; “South Shetland Islands: Penguins in the furnace”.
Suddenly we are faced with a gripping descriptive paragraph, often facts about the geography of the country or its main economies, sometimes an extract from a witness’ piece of literature or a description of the stamp itself - but always painting a vibrantly intriguing image of this new place, and sparking many questions.
Next, we discover the origin, the birth, and life of this now deceased nation. We discover its languages, its poetry, literature, heritage, and landforms, all smashing together to create a rich, unique culture. After the main body of the chapter — which was most often saturated with facts, descriptive eyewitness accounts, and the general principles of these people — we finish as they finished; by discovering their demise.
Each chapter left me with a breathless feeling, having just swum through an ocean of time in the flippers of ancient people. It also left me with heartache, I had just experienced the birth, life, and death of a nation within 1000 words. Reading this can be compared to time travel in the way it allows us to submerge ourselves into each story — enjoying the favorite recipes of these resting souls, and humming happily to their favourite music. It feels easy to forget it was hundreds of years ago.
As a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed student, this book has fuelled my immortal thirst for knowledge.
Despite its role as an advocate for ecology, history, and my subject of passion- geography, It is a surprisingly light read. Berge describes his piece as “a collection of bedtime stories to feed your dreams and carry you off into sleep”. It is almost too easy to read over and over again, picking out favourite ‘stories’ and investigating them at your own pace - using only the redirections Berge provides.
History is a “complicated enterprise, not for those who seek simplicity and consistency”–Jared Diamond. This sentiment applies well to the roller coaster that is Nowherelands. It was my thirst for geographical knowledge that cast me upon the shores of this book, and I found it to be an easy, enjoyable place to start growing my curiosity. However; it is impossible to create an all-inclusive 'summary' of an entire nation. Due to the compact style, some chapters feel more rushed than others, with details such as geographic layout and the experiences of the once-citizens being left out to include other, specific information. Versed historians or researchers may be sceptical towards this inconsistency.
Nowherelands serves as more of an introduction; a starting point. It is a channel briefly breaking away from the ocean of time to run through the land, where it is accessible to us for a moment, before gushing back into the dark infinity of history. Berge has attached many tributaries to this river in the form of book, film, poetry, and music recommendations at the end of each chapter — gifting us with many choices. What torrents do we descend into next? Nowherelands is for those who want to grow their knowledge and be inspired by the bounty of the humanities.
As Johan Welhaven — born of the vanished country Schleswig — puts in his speech to unite the Scandinavian countries: “We recall the image of ancient times, because there we are closer to the life source of our people.” - Without this mindfulness and curiosity, just like the vanished countries, our past, present, and future disappear.
I recommend this book to anyone curious of the wider world; to those who acknowledge the sheer scale and vast history of our globe and our vital roles as individuals: to wonder, to discover, to experience, and to allow the stories of the past to live on within us.