Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Desert Island Reading
As I have previously noted, there are a lot of books around the house, and I am always looking for more. And although I do intend to downsize at some point, it certainly wont be to the radical point of this sort of exercise. And yet its a good thing with any possession to stop and think, occasionally, what objects do I treasure the most and just would not do without.
Exercises of this sort are usually proposed upon the lines of: you're moving to a desert island (or going into space on a long term journey) and packing room is limited. Which 5 books do you choose to take with you? More generous versions (such as the one in the Book of Lists) allow for a small group library with an encyclopedia, a Bible or other religious book, and the complete works of Shakespeare. So will I, if only cause it gives me more flexibility. Series books count as one if they are available in a single volume.
After considerable agonizing I whittled the list down:
1) The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. Simply the most important book I have ever read. Why we need myths, what we can learn from them, why diverse cultures throughout history have told the same tales over and over, and so much more is in this book. The interview style makes it more accessible for many people than some of Campbell's work can be, plus its a good one volume summary of most of his writings. For me the book has given my life structure and meaning beyond mundania. The road map of my soul.
2) I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. Thank goodness there is an omnibus edition of so I didn't have to use 2 choices up on one writer's work. It was hard enough narrowing down from to these 2 from Graves many works of poetry and fiction. But I can't go to the desert island without my dear friend Claudius, which is exactly how one feels about him when these books are finished. Few works of fiction ever brought a time period and its people more to life.This is one of the works I read at least once a year. For me one of the signs of a good book is that I leave wanting more, and I never finish these books without wishing Graves had more to say about the Imperial Caesars.
3) The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. It was rough choosing from my many favorite detective writers, but only with Holmes can I get so much: 56 short stories and 4 novels. Besides being the basic founding work of the genre, Doyle was a great creator of characters and atmosphere. The chemistry between Holmes and Watson has been bettered only once in detective fiction, by Rex Stout. (I couldn't decide on a single book by him though.) I read Holmes most years too, and he's great company, though I will miss Wolfe and Goodwin and Queen and Alleyn and Father Brown when I get to that island.
4) The Lord of the Rings J R R Tolkien. Although this is available in a single volume (And Tolkien intended it too be a single book, it was the publishers who broke it up) I haven't found a single volume edition that includes The Hobbit so someone needs to get on the ball. I first read this in high school, and spent a pleasant summer reading it aloud to my little sister, and have returned to Middle Earth many times since. Like Harry Potter this is a work I have shared with my children as well, both the books, and the superb films. For all the times I have read it, I always find new things. Like most great epics its actually better once you know how it ends and can relax and observe the journey.
5) This of course is the hardest choice, a 10 way tie at least. The choice is so hard. My favorite work of the last 10 years is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but can I really take just one book from a set without the others? Can I take The Killer Angels without the volumes that bookend it? Trying to narrow down to just one book by David McCullough or William Manchester leaves me longing for the others. Finally I decide to take the mammoth coffee table size The Civil War, the companion volume to the Ken Burns series (not without a pang for Baseball) The text is excellent and the photos extraordinary. Like any great history work, it puts the reader in the time and place of the narrative, but it also raises important questions about what we became out of those events.
So what about you? What books would you take. And for all you Kindle/Nook users out there who are about to say that the infinite capacity of your device renders this little debate meaningless, lets present it this way: What if you could only afford to put 5 books on your device? What would you choose and why?