Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

What are your desert island books?

If you're asking just to get at what my favourite books are, please see answers to previous questions.

But if you really want to know which books I'd take—say, a maximum of ten—if I were to be stranded alone on an island for a long time, then the answer is a little different.

I'd be tempted at first to take some of those familiar and beloved books that are already on my favourites list—to delve into throughout my island sojourn.

But I have to wonder how long those books would hold up, if I were isolated for a long, long time. With no other arts or entertainment and with no other social contact, I might have to read each work several times per year. Stranded for many years, I could be forced to go through each book dozens of times.

Great as they are, could I really read Middlemarch and David Copperfield over and over and over, year after year after year? Would my heart be stirred by the umpteenth reading of The Grapes of Wrath? Would I stay engaged by constant exposure to my few selected Philip K. Dick novels or would I, like that author, start hearing alien voices?

Upon reflection, my surprising conclusion is that the best books for me to take on my forced vacation would be books I don't love. I've criticized James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness works for their inaccessibility, but now I'm thinking Ulysses and Finnegans Wake would make for years of puzzling over. I'd have the time for it. Forget them as literature or novels or whatever they're supposed to be, but treat them as intellectual distractions, like doing Sudoku or crosswords.

I'd also have time at last for the complete Canterbury Tales of Chaucer or the collected works of other ancient and medieval writers of epic works I've avoided so far.

Now, War and Peace is a thick novel I do love, but I'd take it with me because I know every time I read it I'd be using up two or three months of absorption in that story.

Of course, I'd have to consider books about desert island living for any practical assistance they might offer, the terrible (in my opinion) Robinson Crusoe heading the list. Might be interesting to compare Daniel Defoe's notes with the real situation around me. However, I suspect that after one reading of Crusoe on an actual deserted island, I'd be ripping out pages to feed my fire. Better to find a nonfiction guide to wilderness survival.

I might also take a Bible, which would shock anyone who knows me. I don't even consider most of the so-called Good Book to be good literature. But I would have the time to catch up on this compendium of ancient mythology that has affected our culture for so long. I might actually understand the book's primitive mindset better in my own natural setting. And by the time I'm rescued, I might have learned enough to quote the text back at religious bigots in the supposed civilized world.

Finally, of course, I'd have to take the horniest book I could find. A man all alone on an island needs a hobby.

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