A 2010 post from my other blog. I’ve made only one change in the list, which I’ll discuss at the end.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to imagine myself being interviewed for shows like Desert Island Disks and Mad About Music. I like to picture myself sitting comfortably across from Gilbert Kaplan and shocking him with my Wild Card choice. Or having a heart-to-heart with Kirsty Young about the unacknowledged genius of the Jim Kweskin Band and the original line-up for Fleetwood Mac.
Never mind that if I were really stuck on an island, the first thing I’d wish for is a yacht and crew.
But for today [October 8, 2010], the NAIWE question is essentially Desert Island Books: If you were stranded alone on a deserted island, what five books would you want?
OK, let’s assume 1) that I’m already conveniently supplied with a book on do-it-yourself medical care (complete with anti-venom for the local snakes and some kind of sulfanilamide injections, just in case) and that my appendix has been removed. And 2) that I have the most up-to-date and complete version of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Special Topic: Deserted Island (with sections on building a shelter, weapons design and construction, killing and preparing food, identifying edible palm tree foliage and fruit, desalinating sea water, etc.).
Because if I don’t have these, they’d be first on my list of must-have books.
But on to the fun part. And this is actually easy. Here’s my list of 5 can’t-live-without-’em “books”. I realize some may think I’m cheating here, by combining several volumes into one “book”, but “book” is not defined in the question, so I’m not breaking any rules.
1. Remembrance of Things Past (Marcel Proust, Moncrieff’s translation), all 8 parts. I’ve gotten only as far as the middle of Within a Budding Grove, but I live in hope that I’ll finish it, and what better place than my private island with no distractions. It also makes a perfect soporific for those restless nights.
2. Collected Writings of Mark Twain, including Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, as well as novellas, short stories, and selected letters. Letters like this one would make my lonely situation easier to accept:
Dear Sirs: Some day you will move me almost to the verge of irritation by your chuckle-headed Goddamned fashion of shutting your Goddamned gas off without giving any notice to your Goddamned parishioners. Several times you have come within an ace of smothering half of this household in their beds and blowing up the other half by this idiotic, not to say criminal, custom of yours. And it has happened again today. Haven’t you a telephone? Ys, S L Clemens (Mark Twain)
I love that he had to add his nom de plume, just in case the Gas Board members weren’t readers.
3. WG Sebald’s: The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, combined into one volume. I’m still waiting for the right inspiration for posting a detailed appreciation of this author who died in 2001. The first is essentially the narrator’s musings while he’s on a walking tour of Norfolk. A page of his writing is like a 7-course meal — rich, filling, with unexpected pairings. Just as a for instance, in one chapter, the topics range from Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement, to Waterloo, and the next chapter takes us straight to China and the Taiping rebellion.
A previous owner spilled patchouli oil on my hardback copy of this book, and whenever I take it from the book shelf, a faint odor reminiscent of senior year in high school sets me on my own Proustian journey.
Austerlitz — I can’t even sum up in a paragraph. Perhaps in a future post.
4. A four-volume set of Tolkien, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales. Now that I think of it, add a 5th volume, with Tolkien’s shorter works (Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major, etc.) – just to round things out. “Leaf by Niggle” is a lovely story of art and persistence and solitude, just right for that deserted isle. (Which reminds me, can I add a set of watercolors and paper to my supplies for this excursion?)
5. Arthur Ransome’s entire Swallows and Amazons series. Appropriately, these books are about children choosing to leave the comforts of home (1930s upper middle class England) to camp on islands, to sail (in summer) or skate (in winter) on vast expanses of lake or river, to climb mountains or mine for gold under them. Nancy Blackett is unmatched by any YA heroine (with the possible exception of Dido Twite) in her readiness to throw over all authority and choose her own path to adventure.
These five collections give me history, fantasy, humor, a bit of romance, hefty reads, and stylistic and conceptual challenges that will never grow tiresome — in short, all the stuff that makes me keep picking up books to see what they have to offer.
Nancy Mitford wrote that her father once read a book and was so satisfied by the experience that he never felt the need to repeat it. That is most assuredly not me. If I must face that deserted island experience, I’d better have my five faves. Oh, and that yacht.
2013 update: Originally, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was my 5th choice, and if I could have a 6th, it would go back on the list. But I’ve lately realized that the perfect books in almost any weather, the stories that can make me feel comfortable wherever my location and whatever my mood, are Ransome’s tales of the Walker and Blackett children.