Short answer: if you want to know people’s favourite books DON’T ask “what would you take on an island” because you’ll get survival answers, raft answers, long books one would like to read but hasn’t, and nostalgia for physical editions which have a sentimental value attached to them.
Long answer and personal choices:
I’ve always had issues with the question of “desert island” books (which should be deserted but let’s let that slide). Sometimes people rephrase it as “if there was a fire, which books would you save?” which is an entirely different question. What people want to know when they ask it is: what are your favourite books? Sometimes one is forced to narrow it down to five. I think, this question should be rephrased to “list your five favourite books up to this point in your life based on content and nostalgia.” There will be some books that you genuinely thought were brilliant as an adult and enjoyed the experience of reading them, and some have amazing memories attached to them like: “when mom read ‘x’ to me on our vacation in ‘y.’” The ‘up to this point’ part leaves room for you to know that the list could change and grow as you change and grow. So let’s break it down.
Now, the ISLAND question. First of all, ‘characters isolated on an island’ is my favourite theme, so if I would answer honestly, people would think I just got ‘inspired’ by the question. If you check out my favourites page you’ll many isolated characters on an island. The island implies a few things and depending on how you see it, it influences your answer. The three things implied are:
- You have all the time in the world to yourself
- You are completely alone and socially isolated
- You might need to survive and/or escape
These are three separate questions which are added to the ‘deserted island question.’ Some people give the smartass answer: “I’d bring How to Build a Raft.” Really? You have no idea how far away you are from any land, you hardly have access to drinkable water (no way you can carry enough with you) and if you don’t know how to build a raft, how do you expect to navigate? Seriously, everyone should know how to build a raft by now, it’s 2017. So the ‘Fire’ and ‘Island’ questions are actually four separate questions. Here’s how I would answer them:
Which books would you save from the fire?
This question is actually more about the physical book because you’re not saving the story. In a case of actual fire, if you had to save five books, most people would save:
- Rare editions
- Books with sentimental value (book you have from childhood, book grandma gave you with her inscription on it, book signed by your favourite author)
What you actually save from the fire, isn’t the STORY or plot line, you are saving the physical object and the additional attachments, which sometimes, may have nothing to do with the story. So please don’t ask the fire question unless you want to know what rare editions and special physical books someone has in their home.
My Answer for This Question:
- My 1777, 3rd English translation of Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Thomas North. I found it at a flea market in Oxford when studying there. I have fond memories of the time I found it, it was only £10 and it’s a beautiful copy of a wonderful text. Just think that the first edition (1579) of this book was the source and foundation for Shakespeare when writing his classical-based plays.
- My Annotated Brothers Grimm with an inscription on the cover from Maria Tatar (the annotator). She is one of my favourite academics and I had the chance to meet her once and have lunch with her. She sent me this book as a gift a month later. The inscription says “here’s to magic.”
- My 1910 copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. This book was hard to find, and I love it so much, and it’s a rare edition.
- My Romanian edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. When I was seven years old, St. Nicholas (on Dec 6 he leaves presents in your shoes) gave me that book and I cherished it for many years. It’s the only book I brought with me when I moved to Canada.
- Lord of the Rings (Deluxe Editions). One of my favourite teachers from high school gave me this book. It’s so beautiful, irreplaceable, and from someone I really respected.
- Infinite Jest (First Edition). By far the most expensive book I’ve purchased. I just acquired this gem from The Strand Bookstore in New York City, while walking the town with two of my dearest friends. It will forever be ingrained in my memory as one of the most special weekends.
The THREE Island Sub-Questions
Here I would ideally have books like: which plants are poisonous, herb books, natural remedies, how to navigate in nature, which fruits/vegetables are edible, how to preserve foods for long periods of time. I would also be more concerned with building a tree house, rather than trying to get away.
Also…Island-Specific Mental Survival! I would take with me The Ultimate Lost and Philosophy. It would give me a guideline, and a higher purpose/hope whilst being there, and it would remind me of one of my favourite shows. It would strengthen my relationship with the island.
ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
This aspect of the Island question which some people answer with, implies that you FINALLY have time to read books that you didn’t get a chance to yet, but definitely want to read. Given all the time and freedom, you’ll finally do it. Here’s the problem: HOW do you know you will like them? What if you bring with you Infinite Jest, Middlemarch, and War and Peace….and then find out that you don’t like any of them all that much, and realize: they’re now going to be with you on the island forever and you don’t even like them! Also, even if you were to ‘study’ it for a purpose like writing a great academic paper, or showing off to your friends—well, there’s no chance you can get OFF the island ever. So you have to choose the ones that you love alone, so you must be honest with yourself. Here are some books that are really long and it’s something I wanted to get to but I’m scared of starting because they are way too long of a commitment:
- In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
- The Wheel of Time Omnibus – Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson). I am not sure if an omnibus exists yet, I’m just trying to incorporate a series into one.
- The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
- The Complete Arabian Nights (I’ve read individual stories but never the complete)
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Again, there is no guarantee I would absolutely love any of these, but they are long works I would get to if I was focused, alone, and had a lot of time.
FAVOURITE NOVELS (Good Company)
The bottom line, the question based on content, and story, with a mix of nostalgia. What would I bring? Most fairy tales and children’s lit, as well as Lord of the Rings, are so deeply ingrained in my mind that I don’t think it would need to be ‘read’ or ‘reread’ on the island alone. I could probably write them from memory. But here is my squad:
- The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the company I’d like to keep, I mean, obviously it doesn’t cover poetry, and all the others, but if I really had to narrow it down to five people’s works that I absolutely love, and would enjoy reading and rereading on an island alone…I think these would be the ones. Again, it’s subject to change as I go on.
Ultimately my point is, that asking someone “What books would you take on a ‘desert’ island” or “which books you’d save from the fire” have different implications, and different answers. So if you want to know people’s favourite questions DON’T ask that because you’ll get survival answers, raft answers, long books I’d like to read answers, and nostalgia for physical editions which have a sentimental value attached to them.
***WARNING: This is a reflection/analysis there are many spoilers“***
Since 2009 I have been incapable of answering wholeheartedly, or even understand myself, why my answer for “what’s your favourite movie?” has been: “The Reader.” I had no personal relationship, nor family history with Germany and the Holocaust, nor felt particularly attached to the study of law. Many films (and books) before and after The Reader had interacted with this theme so much that Ricky Gervais jokingly remarked to Winslet in the introduction to the 2009 Golden Globes after she had received nominations for both an Oscar (which she won) and a Golden Globe (also won):
“I told you, do a Holocaust movie the awards come, didn’t I?”
I was partly embarrassed that in order to get to the highly philosophical and literary discussions at the end—should one choose my suggestion and associate me with the film through recommendations—that one would have to sit through 45 minutes filled with somewhat uncomfortable sex scenes between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.
Having re-watched it this past week, re-read the book, and interacted with it through Audible as well, I have finally figured out the film’s appeal: it is a highly biblio-centric puzzle. The Reader is not for a lazy audience. The film purposely leaves many unanswered questions for which the book, written by Bernhard Schlink, is an absolutely crucial companion.
Professor Rohl makes an excellent point in the film as he says:
“the question is not whether it is moral, people often tend to know murder is wrong, the question is: is it legal, and not by our laws, no, but by the laws of the time.”
The law however, can only work with facts, and these facts are rooted in text. The jury mainly worked with the text of the Jewish survivor and the records are the only proof that Hanna Schmitz or any other defendant had participated. Knowing Hanna is illiterate through Michael’s voice we understand as a distant audience why it looks suspicious to others that she should have rejected a secretarial position with Siemens and rather purposely enrolled in the SS as a guard. There’s a beautiful line in the book where Michael says
“with the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.”
Although the novel contains many more clues to Hanna’s illiteracy pre-trial, the movie displays flashes of Hanna’s passive looks at menus looking with envy at young children who have no difficulty ordering what they desire.
There is however a very important detail that the movie has left out and I wouldn’t have been able to find the answer until much later with the help of the book. In the middle of a class discussion one eager students says (about the Holocaust):
“everyone knew, our parents, our teachers, the question isn’t whether everyone knew, the question is how could you have let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”
Near the end of the novel when Michael has been notified of Hanna’s suicide he explores her cell. He narrates (in the book):
“I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Ellie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature at the camp.”
The prison manager tells Micahel:
“several years ago I had to get her [Hanna] a general concentration-camp bibliography and then one or two years ago she asked me to suggest some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards…as soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read, she began to read about the concentration camps.”
To me, this is the most important detail. Hanna couldn’t read so she lacked empathy and couldn’t read people either. She says in the film after Michael is so worried and concerned that this whole time she hadn’t learned anything from the trial, nor thought about any of the victims: “well I did learn kid, I learned to read.” Hanna kills herself because as the young student suggested: the only redemption from the knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust is suicide.
It could be argued that the film tries to empathize too much with a Nazi—but this book (and movie) is much more about the inferiority an individual has due to illiteracy. Had Hanna been able to read she might have taken the job at Siemens instead. By asking young Jewish girls to read to her before sending them away perhaps she gave them better last days than other prisoners in similar situations.
The first time I watched the film I interpreted Michael’s silence on the knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy as revenge and anger. I thought he felt that because she had slept with him, and met him when he too (like the prisoners) was weak/sick, and that she had treated him the same way as she did many other young people that he suddenly wasn’t special in her life—and the audiobooks that followed were his redemption. However, Michael is special because he’s Hanna’s only survivor. He survived her treatment and he knew her secret.
The film is entirely biblio-centric. It interacts with the legal system using text and archives for proof (memoirs included), reading aloud and audiobooks, and the ultimate shame of being illiterate which resulted in crimes beyond the human imagination. What Schlink gets to in the end is that reading teaches one empathy. Only through reading can one truly think about life in another’s shoes and only when Hanna learns to read can she really understand the camps—despite the fact that she was physically there. Michael keeps Hanna’s secret until the end because he knows that to her it is a bigger shame to admit that she is unable to read than to take all the blame for what happened at Auschwitz. In the end all we see is what is left of Hanna Schmitz as text: two words on a tombstone hidden in a rural cemetery.
Michael shares their story as text. He narrates:
“at first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it…[then] I wanted to recapture it by writing…and it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.”
This is the film and book’s ultimate message (to me at least): stories heal. Michael and the young Jewish woman used their experiences with Hanna Schmitz and healed through text. Writing as therapy, and reading as empathy: that is The Reader, and that is why this will continue to be my favourite film and one of my favourite contemporary books.