Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2013

On a Desert Island

Imagine the scene:

The hour has grown late.

The interesting, good-looking people have all left the party.

The good wine has all been consumed, leaving only a bottle of Kamchatka Vodka and a can of cranberry juice.

There’s no more ice.

Now is the moment for some nerd (and only the nerds are still hanging on) to say, “What ten books would you take with you if you had to be marooned on a desert island for the rest of your life?”

This game can also be played substituting “music” (assuming one has the means to play it via immortal batteries). There is, in fact a program on BBC Radio 4 titled “Desert Island Discs” that’s been running for more than 70 years with exactly that premise. CLICK HERE to visit that web site.

One note about that word, “desert.” It’s to be taken in the sense of “deserted,” not “arid” or “sandy.” In other words, you’re the only human there. Other assumptions are that the island is in an ideally temperate climate, and it has water and no life-threatening forces such as large predators, snakes, poisonous spiders or access to Fox News.

This time-tested bull-session conversation starter makes a lot of assumptions, primarily that you arrive on your new island home in perfect health and that the need to provide yourself with shelter, food and clothing won’t consume 100% of your waking hours, giving you TIME to read. Back in 1719 old Dan Defoe cleverly placed Robinson Crusoe’s wrecked ship just close enough to shore that Rob could make repeated trips there to retrieve all manner of useful stuff. A little more than a hundred years earlier in The Tempest, Shakespeare marooned Antonio on an island that hardly qualifies as deserted, where ol’ Prospero had a pretty spiffy establishment; Despite the dramatically necessary Caliban, there was also the alluring Miranda. These approaches both have a lot in common with another work from the classical canon, “Gilligan’s Island,” in which the Professor constructs an endless array of ingenious rescue-enabling devices from parts unaccountably salvaged from the wreck of the Minnow, while blessed with the company of the charming Mary Ann and the glamorous Ginger. Prospero and Caliban? Well, consider The Skipper and Gilligan. Debate rages on in the halls of academe.

Let’s go with ten. You get 10 books to read (and re-read) for however long your stress-shortened lonely life extends on that uncharted desert isle. What books would you choose? I want you to participate. Posting my list won’t be any fun if you don’t send in your selections. Assemble yours, and let us know it by posting it in a comment.

One fact to keep in mind is that you’re not just going to read these ten books, then go to the library or click to order some more. These are IT. You’re going to read and re-read them. Since I plan to live a long time, they’ve got to be books that can hold up to multiple readings. The Lord of the Rings heads the list of a large category of books I’ve already read many times, and along with Tolkein, there’s Hemingway, Pynchon, Anthony Burgess and many others. I’ve read some of them so many times that I’ll just have to remember them. Can’t take everything.

Here we go.

1: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Yes, they top the list. The complete works gets you more than 30 plays and 150 sonnets, plus other stuff in the back of the book that no one has ever actually read, so at some point you’ll be ahead of the entire rest of the world. These are some of the best stories ever told, in style and language unmatched in five hundred years. For readers of English, at least, it’s hard to imagine a richer source of diversion and study packed into one book. With a lifetime to spend, one might even devote three or four minutes to contemplating the question of whether some guy named William Shakespeare actually wrote them, or Edward deVere, Earl of Oxford; or maybe Sir Walter Raleigh or Christopher Marlowe or Mark Twain. Then after a few minutes, you’ll have had enough of that, and you can go back to Timon of Athens.

2: The next book on the list will have to be a dictionary. There would be nothing more frustrating than to be stuck on an island when the word, “zymorphic” pops into your head but be unable to look up its meaning. That would drive you crazy in no time. I choose my American Heritage Dictionary, although I hate to leave behind my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which would give me a great opportunity to look up the origins of those obscure words in Shakespeare. But the OED would use up two of my precious 10 volumes. Plus, the American Heritage has pictures.

3: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. This book has to go with me, even though I’ve read it many times. I can expound at length about this book, and I may already have done so previously in this blog. The book has the most masterful use of point-of-view in the English language. I’ll be happy rereading it some more. Ford audaciously starts the book with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” and he proceeds to describe exactly that, in a way that breaks the heart at the book’s conclusion. This is my ultimate Desert Island book.

4: In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. No regular readers will be surprised by this selection or need me to say more about my admiration for this book. In these lonely years to come on my scrap of island I’ll have time to read it again and again. But, my edition requires three volumes for the seven books. Probably you’re going to insist that I take only one. If so, the final volume has three books, “The Prisoner,” “The Fugitive,” and “Time Regained,” and I’ll settle for those.

5: Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon. I’ve read every other book by Pynchon two, three or more times. Since this is his newest one, I’ll take a chance that it will wear as well as the others. As the only author who’s a near-contemporary of mine on this list, Mr. P. speaks powerfully to me, and epitomizes the literary world I know best.

6: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. This is my most difficult decision. I should leave it behind; I know it as well as any book there is. Yet, five years from now, twenty years from now on my lonely island, I’d get that urge to once more revisit that complete world Hem described in his tirelessly spare sentences. Those compelling characters who speak like real people, flawed and misguided as they are, with their conflicts and machismo and sorrow and jealousy and love and lust. And the tennis and boxing and fishing and the DRINKING; my god, the drinking. It has to go with me.

As I mentioned, this island sojourn will require re-reading — the same few works over and over. So far, these are all books I’ve read at least once already (except for the dictionary). I also want to bring along some books I’ve always intended to read, but never have. Perhaps I’ll save one for many, many years, knowing that it’s the last “new” book I’ll ever read! Here are those precious few new discoveries that will await me!

7: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s work is a fairly large hole in my reading experience, with only Lolita already under my belt. I look forward to more.

8: I, Claudius, by Robert Graves. Why is this book so well-regarded, and why haven’t I read it? I’ll find out!

9: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. I simply have to read this, and I’ve never made time for it. Now I have time. I read Anna Karenina for the first time not long ago, and it was a revelation: massive, sweeping and enthralling. I look forward to opening another of this master’s works. I hope I pick a good translation!

I have one choice remaining. Only one more friend among the shelves full of books I’ve read and treasured throughout my life. Can I leave behind the hapless and hilarious Jim Dixon from Lucky Jim; the wacky insanity of Three Men in a Boat; the poetry of Housman, Swinburne, Yeats and Ogden Nash? Will I never again lurk with Philip Marlowe in the rainy, threatening streets of L.A.? Puzzle over mind-busting conundrums from Philip K. Dick? Trudge through the dim light of a post-apocalyptic world with Riddley Walker or visit the dystopia of 1984? And what of the thousands and thousands of books yet to be read. Lost to me forever, now.

My boat is leaving. I rush to the shelf. It has to be THAT one.

10: Beowulf. The beginning. The earliest record of our language. The wellspring of words, themes and stories that echo through everything that follows for a thousand years. It’s the cradle of all that’s been born since some unknown scribe wrote it down on its now-fading parchment. But! Do I take the translation by Seamus Heaney, even though I’m not particularly fond of it, though it gives me the original text as well as a modern English version? That would mean leaving behind my worn copy of the Klaeber edition, complete with marginal notes, many dictated in class by the renowned Sherman Kuhn, my long-ago professor, who personally knew many of the scholars cited in the footnotes. I’d be on my own, with only the Anglo-Saxon lines and the glossary from which to crib my own fractured version. Heck with it! Take the Klaeber. I’ll have years and years to parse out a new translation of my own!

I’m off to the boat! Please post your lists. I want to know what you’ll take with you.

© Copyright 2013 Brad Nixon



  1. On the not-so-literary side, a book to fill the rest of your life and serve as a reference, and adding the assumption that you have a chess computer, you’d want the latest edition of Modern Chess Openings! The ol’ “MCO” will last a very long time, and assist you becoming world champion of the island world!


  2. Tough one – don’t know that I can come up with a full set of ten without a lot more thought. But here’s a few to get me started. I’m with you on Shakespeare & War and Peace (have just started this, and would agree that it would be worth a thorough read). I’d add Lord of the Rings, and something from Neal Stephenson (if I can’t sneak the Baroque Cycle as a single book, I’d probably take Anathem). James Joyce’s Ulysses is a definite, and Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle makes the list as well. That makes six. I’d have to think a bit more on the rest…


    • Nick, I’m delighted to learn about a writer with whom I’m unacquainted on someone’s list. I’ll look him up. I can’t argue with any of your choices. I hate to leave Tolkein behind, but I’ve read LOR many many times in 45 years. I thought about Ulysses, but having been through it a couple of times, I don’t know how much more I’ll derive from it without also taking along a guide like Anthony Burgess’ or something. Thanks for the list!


  3. I would take my Boy Scout Handbook for survival skills and other things I read about but never got a chance to use. Then if that didn’t work some religious/spiritual books (Bible, Bhagavad Gita, anything by the Dalai Lama, etc.) to contemplate my demise…


    • Great choices for physical and spiritual survival. Thank you.


  4. The first 5 were easy. Then I started dredging up from memory books I hadn’t thought about for years – a lot of really good books. The Horse’s Mouth, The Futurological Congress, Zelazny’s Amber series, Into Thin Air, Squash Racquets;The Khan Game. The list, like the road, goes on forever. Now I’m feeling like trekking down to the library and reading them all again.

    Since I’m alone on the island How to Win Friends and Influence People didn’t make the cut. Shame.

    1. Joy of Cooking. Irma Rombauer. An older edition, pre-microwave. Cause if I’m on an island I’m gonna need to be catching and cooking things you don’t find on a trip to the local Super Mart. Beaver tail, possum, squirrel (Ms. Rombauer recommends grey squirrel, the red tend to be “gamey”). Advice on cutting sides of beef, techniques for smoking or otherwise preserving foods, you name it. Though I won’t be needing the chapter on how to host a formal dinner.

    2. The Bible. Spiritual guide, stories, ethical and moral puzzles. Who better to empathize with Job, or Jesus in the wilderness, than someone stuck alone on an island?

    3. Young Men and Fire. Norman MacLean. Mr. MacLean sure could write, and his observations about human nature never fail to fascinate.

    4. Moby Dick. Never read it, guess it’s time.

    5. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Douglas Hofstadter. Started it once, didn’t get too far with it. Here’s hoping I’ll do better second time around.

    6. Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman.

    7. Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. Jean Shepherd. You need a good laugh now and then. A collection of Don Martin’s best almost made this slot – Fester Bestertester is one funny guy.

    8. Roughing It. Mark Twain. Huck Finn? Tom Sawyer? The short stories? Mark Twain easily makes the cut, but which one? Roughing It gets the nod.

    9. The Martian Chronicles. Ray Bradbury. The human side of science fiction. Which is, after all, the more interesting side.

    10. The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkein. But only if the appendices are still there. And if I can throw in The Silmarillion with it I will.


    • That’s a great list. All excellent choices. I considered M-D but twice is enough for me. You’ll enjoy the story. Young Men and Fire, I also considered. Hard to let it go. Thank you again for introducing me to it — one of the most powerful acts of writing, ever. Jean Shepherd and Walt W. together. Great. And Twain! I didn’t even think about him. Man, I may have to amend my list. Thanks.


  5. 1&2 I really like your idea of including the dictionary. That is very clever and fits in great with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare as well as the other lengthy books I’ll include on my list. I’m going to be thankful for the dictionary help.
    3-6 Those lengthy books I would be happy to have along are Don Quixote, Ulysses, War and Peace and Gravity’s Rainbow. Never read them and there will be plenty of time for rereading.
    7 If I could get my hands on anything like The Complete Works of Shakespeare for Vonnegut, Tolkien, Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh it would be tempting to include those, but I do not know that they exist. So I’ll go with one I have not read, Waugh’s Scoop. been good and this one is rated high so it goes with me.
    8 Maybe this one is cheating, but at least I am not sneaking in a book on How To Build a Boat (Radio, Airplane…….) or a book of matches. I would want to know where I am on this desert isle, so I would take a bo ok on Astronomy. Can I figure out my location from the stars? It would be interesting to try.
    9. Herzog. Saul Bellow has been a joy to read and Herzog is still in the future for me.
    10. Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel. This one might be my big risk, but Wolf Hall was a lot of fun and I want to enjoy this next chapter. Book #3 will have to just hang out there beyond the shores of my desert island as it has not been printed yet. Maybe if I hurry and get Bring Up The Bodies in before getting stranded I will know whether to add book #3 or, possibly, make a different selection.


    • Mark, those are great choices. I’ve never read Scoop, either, and it ocurred to me recently to look it up. Since my boat hasn’t sailed yet, I’m going to post a couple of revisions to my list, and one of yours makes my revised list, Quixote. And, as I know my readers are all smart and inquiring, I’m delighted that you’ve named an author of which I’m unaware, Hilary Mantel. I will investigate. Happy sailing!


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