A question is sometimes asked of celebrities, or among friends having a conversation. The question is, “If you were to spend the rest of your life alone on an island, what ten books would you want to have with you?” Since no one has actually asked me that question, I am free to change the rules. I will allow myself twelve books on my deserted island, because the Holy Bible and the hymnal are such obvious selections that they need no explanation. The following ten books are listed alphabetically by author.
- Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. I have been enchanted by this book from the first time I read it, which was a winter weekend while I was still in school. One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it contains not a single likeable character. Each of them, even the minor characters, is deeply flawed. Even the narrator of the story has more flaws than virtues in his weak yet self-centered approach to others. What is enjoyable about reading about flawed people? One tires of endless nobility and generosity in so many other books of this genre. Wuthering Heights is the truest novel of its time and setting of any I have yet discovered. Yet it also far surpasses all the later attempts to write novels of fiction that contained only believable storylines with no fantasy or mystery.
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, fortunately printed in the same volume. This is one of eight books I read faithfully every summer of my childhood. (Perhaps someday I will blog about all eight.) In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the Alice stories depict a whimsical world of nonsense that is not quite nonsense, because it possesses its own inner sense. I would be sorry to spend the rest of my days without one childlike pleasure in my collection.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot. Some years ago I began reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because I thought I should, and this novel stood out as the gem of the collection. The title character is a simple-minded prince who wanders into the treacherous world of polite and refined society, yet survives all its traps, at least for a while. Many readers have tried to present the prince as a Christ-like character. I’m not sure that is true, but the story possesses a delightful view of Russian noble life in the nineteenth century that blends well with the world of the Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Not one of my favorites the first time I read it, this novel has grown on me with repeated readings. It truly deserves to be considered “the Great American Novel,” because it depicts both sides of life in the America of its time, while also presenting timeless messages about wealth and about finding meaning in life (or failing to do so). I find it completely appropriate that Andy Kaufman chose to read this particular novel to his audiences at one point in his career, because so much of the novel reveals the difference between surface impressions and deeper realities.
- Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. If I was allowed to choose only Hemingway or only Fitzgerald for my library, I would go with Hemingway without hesitation. This is, no doubt, his greatest novel. I remember reading it late at night during a hot summer when I came home from work after midnight, not yet sleepy. The characters and settings of this book are as vivid and as believable as any I can remember from literature in general.
- A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall. I could not spend the rest of my days without some Kierkegaard, and if I cannot have the complete collection with me, Bretall’s anthology is second-best. Kierkegaard is a thoughtful writer and surprisingly relevant to present-day topics. He is not easy to read, and is often misunderstood, but I find time spent reading his writing worth the effort.
- Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind. If I’m to spend the rest of my life on this island, I want to have at least one book I have never read before. Ever since I read Moby Dick a few years ago, Gone With the Wind has been the “most important book I never read.” I’ve seen the movie a time or two, and other members of my family have read the book and enjoyed it, so I think I will include it in my collection.
- Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire. Hemingway and Fitzgerald write well, but Nabakov paints with words; his artistry surpasses all other authors who write in English. This sublime writing is particularly amazing, because English was Nabakov’s third language, after Russian and French. Although he is most famous for writing Lolita, Nabakov’s best work is Pale Fire. He weaves several stories together by having one character write a thousand-line poem and having another write the Foreword and Commentary on the poem. The misunderstandings shown by the second character are both farcical and elegant. Nabakov creates a multi-layered work which remains readable and entertaining, unlike the cubist writing of James Joyce. “Chapman’s Homer” indeed!
- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book also works on several levels (Spoilers coming!!) as it combines a story of a father and son traveling cross-country by motorcycle, memories of a nervous breakdown, a history of western philosophy, and elements of eastern philosophy. Pirsig’s ability to weave these disparate elements into a satisfying novel not only make me want to read the novel again and again but also to study the philosophers he mentioned.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. If I had to choose between these masterpieces, I would go with Cat’s Cradle. Fortunately, a publisher has recently produced a several-volume set of Vonnegut’s novels, and these two works are in the same volume. Vonnegut’s work has been described as “dark humor.” He writes with a light touch, but he conveys deep thoughts. His style is perfect to lift the heaviness of some of the other works I have chosen.
I hope I am never stranded anywhere without my complete library—my follow-up list of honorable mentions would be longer than some of these books. But if I had to limit myself to just a few books, these are the ones I would choose. J.