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.