Connectives Home   Books for a Desert Island?

In a few years, the question "if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island for the rest of your life, what 1-, 3-, 5-, pick-your-own-ridiculously-small-number of books would you take with you?" will make no sense.

When all the books that ever danced can be carried inside the head of a pin, the fear of losing them in the sand will be a far bigger worry than selecting them in the first place. Or keeping them dry through the shipwreck.

Speaking of shipwrecks, a complete works of Will Shakespeare is on my list again, after dropping off for several years for reasons that might be worth discussing at another time. My copy is a 1911 Oxford Shakespeare "edited, with a glossary by W. J. Craig, M.A. Trinity College, Dublin", which my grandmother had as a text book at teachers' college. Apart from the family association, I like it because it has no commentary, no criticism, no footnotes, no helpful explanations: just a two-page preface and an unobtrusive glossary.

Commentary can be a pleasure though. Henry Fielding's commentaries on his novel and its characters are one of the charms of Tom Jones, and the main reason the book goes into my sea chest. The story is complicated, the ending is satisfying, the characters are diverse, the writing is strong, and the author is great company. The fact that they all belong to the eighteenth century, rather than the twenty-first, is only appropriate: Robinson Crusoe, the archetypal shipwreck story, was published not long before.

I think the only copy of Robinson Crusoe that I've read must have been an abridged children's edition. According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, "the author tells in minute detail the methods by which, with the help of a few stores and utensils saved from the wreck and the exercise of infinite ingenuity, Crusoe built himself a house, domesticated goats, and made himself a boat." I don't remember any of that, and I'm content to leave Robinson Crusoe to his own island.

My choice for information and guidance on surviving and living well on a desert island is Permaculture, A Designers' Handbook by Bill Mollison. This is a colossal book, and I've never read it from cover to cover. But I keep coming back to it as a reference book and as a reminder of what "working with Nature" means in practice, whether the practice is in a first-world city or a third-world village. Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is a systematic approach to sustainable living. It's based on "protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protacted and thoughtless action", an important consideration for someone who's unsure of their water supply (this is a desert island, right?) or how to tell edible fungi from hallucinogens. Even if it wasn't a practical reference book, I'd want this one with me for its attitude.

The Neverending Story, written by German author Michael Ende and translated into English by Ralph Manheim, is a children's fantasy, with a child hero whose challenge is, at least partly, to grow up. Like most adults, I haven't quite finished with that one, but that's not why I treasure this book. It's a desert-island book because it shows, more clearly than any other story I remember, that people need stories and that fantastic stories are not the same thing as wish-fulfilling fantasies. (The film version got this one sickeningly wrong.) It's also a stirring tale, with villains vast and sinister, unexpected help, a sense of awe, and a great journey.

That's four books. I wanted five, but it's proving very difficult to choose just one more. So I'll save them for another time.

November, 1999

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