My desert island books

You know the question: if you were going to be trapped alone on a desert island, what book, or five books, or ten books would you want to take with you? I decided to make a list —  allowing myself ten, because I’m feeling generous, and also anthologies, because ditto, but no cheats like a magical solar-powered Kindle pre-loaded with the last thousand years of bestsellers. Paper books it is, though I am willing to imagine in this instance that they’re all waterproof and bugs won’t eat them.

I had two main criteria when I was picking my books. The first is that each one should be already proven as very re-readable; I wouldn’t want to pick a book that I’ve only read once and then find out that it’s no good when you go through it again. I already read many of these books on about a yearly basis. The other quality is that they be written with a certain richness and depth of thought, such that even reading them very frequently (and who knows how long I’ll be stuck on this island, anyway) will continue to give me new things to think about. And so, in no particular order, here’s the list:

1: The Bible: I know, I know, way to be a cliché, Christine. Well: whatever. I’m a Christian; I read the Bible. Though if you think this is a clichéd pick, just wait until you get to:

2: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: If you’ve been around here for a while you probably already know that I read The Lord of the Rings yearly, in December. I started doing this in 2003; I wanted to read the whole thing before viewing the final installment of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. So I know the story pretty well — one certainly hopes I would, after fifteen read-throughs (reads-through?) — but every time I go back to it I find something new: some new details, some theme I hadn’t twigged on before but can suddenly see everywhere. Plus, if I want a desert-island memory challenge I can work on getting all of the poetry by heart — yes, maybe even the Elvish.

3: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: Sometimes it still surprises me when I remember that the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, I didn’t like it at all. I was too young, I think; when I went back to it a few years later it quickly shot to the top of my favourites list and has remained there ever since. It’s a brilliant book; Austen has a satirist’s eye for the absurd, she’s terribly funny, and it’s a great story. Sometimes I go back and just read my favourite scenes: Elizabeth’s interview with Lady Catherine at Longbourn, for instance, or when she receives The Letter.

4: The Complete Shakespeare, by William Shakespeare OR English Renaissance Drama, ed. David Bevington and Lars Engle: This is a tricky one. I really enjoy plays from this era, so much so that I once applied to do a master’s degree in the field. (I didn’t get in. Which meant I did other things instead. So that all turned out all right.) My dilemma is this: all of Shakespeare but nothing else, or none of Shakespeare but a lot of other wonderful things? Probably I would choose the Shakespeare, but it’s a tough call.

5: The Book of Common Prayer, with Hymns (Canadian 1962 edition): Since I assume there will be no church on this island*, the Daily Office will give me some spiritual/liturgical structure, and the hymns in the back will give me something to sing. I don’t know all of the tunes (they are not included, just words), but since I can count meter perhaps I can pass the time by composing hymn settings as well.

* Joke: There was a man who was trapped on a desert island for many years. Finally, he saw a ship passing by; he built a smoky fire and managed to hail the ship and was saved. The captain of the ship came aground to see how the man had kept himself healthy and occupied for so long.

The man told the captain how he hunted for food and found fresh water, and then pointed to three buildings he had constructed on the hillside. “That is my home,” he said, “and the one beside it is my church.”

“What is the third building?” asked the captain.

“Oh,” said the man, “that’s where I used to go to church.”

End joke.

6. The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold: This is a favourite, favourite, absolutely favourite fantasy novel of mine, and I read it at least once every eighteen months or so. It’s not the elves-and-wizards type of fantasy: more of politics and intrigue and gods and demons, set in a lightly-disguised medieval Spain. Bujold has created a really fascinating universe for these novels (The Curse of Chalion is the first in a trilogy, but the books are bound together chiefly by their setting and stand alone very well). The inhabitants worship a pantheon of five gods — Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Bastard — and part of why The Curse of Chalion appeals to me so much (besides being a rip-roaring good story) is that it grapples with some pretty complex theological questions. I dig it.

7. Possession, by A. S. Byatt: This is another one of my yearly re-reads; I tackle Possession every November. It’s a very November-y book, really. The story follows two parallel tracks: the first, two nineteenth-century poets named Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte; the second is set in the 1980s and follows the story of Roland Michell and Maude Bailey, an Ash and a LaMotte scholar, respectively. But it’s so much more than that — Byatt has crafted an incredible pastiche novel that roves through time, with all sorts of mystery and romance and literary theory and a bajillionty small thematic details you can follow through the course of the novel. It’s fantastic.

8. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Sixth Edition), ed. Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall, and Mary Jo Salter: Okay, so I haven’t read this particular anothology before, but I do enjoy reading poetry, and at 1,200+ pages I figure that it would suit my purposes admirably: plenty to read, plenty to think about, plenty to memorize. The Norton Anthologies are pretty solid in general, and I love Mary Jo Salter’s poems and so am willing to take her editorial judgment on faith.

9. The Best of James Herriot, by James Herriot: I love these stories. James Herriot (real name Alf Wright) was a country veterinarian wrote about his practice in Yorkshire in the 1930s and 40s. They’re charming stories, and this is the largest collection I could find at 543 pages (I’d rather have the collected works, but since that comes in eight volumes I ruled it ineligible for this particular island scenario). Herriot’s stories make for wonderful feel-good, comfort reading. I love how deftly Herriot paints a portrait of life in this very a particular time and place.

10. A case of blank notebooks and pencils: No blogs on the island, of course — but I need to write just like I need to read! So I will allot my tenth slot to blank books. Is it cheating to have notebookS, plural? Maybe. I don’t care. (If you object, feel free to make your own imaginary island and enforce the rules as stritctly as you’d like. I’ll be over here with my notebooks.)

Those are my picks. What are yours?

2 thoughts on “My desert island books

  1. Ooo you did this in such a way that your island would have a small library! I like how you think. I have not read your 6 and 7, but they must be good to make it on this list! Hm if I could find a desert island survival guide and cookbook I’d probably stick that in there :p


    • Oh yeah, it’s all about the anthologies. And if you can get your hands on the Byatt or Bujold, they are so worth your time. (Bringing a desert island survival guide didn’t even occur to me as an option. But yeah… that would make sense. Only — what would I drop?)


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