The colorful, plastic-coated placemat I often eat from at first looks as if it should have an ad for a tree stump removal business in one corner, a maze to be traced with a crayon, another ad for a gun shop, and a Bible verse in the center, but this placemat was not pilfered from my local diner. I bought it at the wonderful Roadside America, a miniature village housed in an old dancehall off a Pennsylvania interstate. The tourist attraction was then for sale, and now, sadly, closed. When I was there, it looked as if it needed all the support it could get, so I decided I would buy something from the gift shop. I had trouble selecting among the sparse and tired-looking wares. I finally decided on a couple of “Painless Learning Placemats.”

          One has a Mercator projection of the earth in black and white with all the country boundaries inked in but no labels on one side, and on the other has the same map with the countries colored with one of four colors and each nation labeled. (Apparently the placemat’s designer wished to give another example of the famous four-color map theorem that says no more than four colors are needed to color the regions of a map so no two adjacent regions have the same color. Go ahead. Try coloring in a map and see if this is right. The theorem has a controversial proof, but we can leave that for another day.)

          I could use this table covering to improve my knowledge. I might test myself by trying to remember what countries border Burkina Faso or whether St. Lucia is north or south of St. Kitts or Barbados, but I have not done that. My ignorance has remained even though I have been looking at this map-placemat for several years.

What mostly draws my attention to the placemat are not the continental countries, but the little specks of land dotted in the oceans. These islands fascinate me. This may have come about by the boyish, romantic imaginations of what life was like for the exiles and castaways marooned on remote islands. Of course, there was Napoleon and his first exile on Elba. I learned early the famous palindrome “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” but I had little idea where it was. I knew that Napoleon escaped this island and led armies once more, which all seemed wildly adventurous. I knew that later he was again exiled, this time to St. Helena, which was chosen because its remoteness made escape much harder. From my placemat map I now see that St. Helena is in the South Atlantic about halfway between Brazil and Angola. Yep: it would be a long swim to Paris.

          When I thought of Napoleon’s exiles, I assumed that the emperor had the run of Elba or St. Helena and was not confined to a prison such as on Alcatraz or Devil’s Island. The image of Napoleon at St. Helena did not conjure up thoughts of Dreyfuss, Papillon, or the Bird Man but of Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked castaway on an island off the Venezuela coast. Well…it did until I tried to read Daniel Defoe’s book. I was expecting an adventure story along the lines of the Count of Monte Cristo (fun read). Instead, I encountered ponderous prose trying to make theological points, which I think boiled down to “it is good to be a Christian,” although it was never clear what the book meant by “Christian.” Before reading Robinson Crusoe, I thought that the book was primarily about the relationship between the castaway and Friday, and I kept awaiting the native’s appearance in hopes that the prose would become readable. I was disappointed. (What does it say about Crusoe and Defoe that Robinson can’t bother to learn or use “Friday’s” actual name?)

          A real-life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe was Alexander Selkirk, who was a castaway in the uninhabited Juan Fernández Islands for four years in early 1700s. This archipelago has three main islands, now named Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk, and Santa Clara. When I first read about Selkirk, it intrigued me that there were places on this earth that had no humans. But as I thought further, I was amazed that some dots of land in thousands of miles of ocean were inhabited. How did that come about? Of course, many of these specks on my map have had inhabitants for a long time, and many of these islands were known to and fascinate me—Hawaii, Tahiti, Pitcairn, Easter, Wake, Midway, Shetland, Faroe, Galapagos Islands—but it is all those islands I had never heard of that have been intriguing me.

(continued December 1)