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The Five Books I'd Bring to a Desert Island

November 23, 2011, 1:31 PM

I’m eager to join in the “Which five books on a desert island?” game suggested by Big Think editor Dan Honan in a recent post. As a blogger, would-be critic, and all-around neurotic, compulsive listmaking is my bread and butter.

1. Collected Works, William Shakespeare


Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again. —Caliban, The Tempest


2. The Complete Poems, Emily Dickinson

I felt compelled to choose between this and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which is equally overflowing but more uplifting. Finally I decided that if I were marooned on a rock, I'd want to indulge my melancholy side. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her great desert island poem, "Crusoe in England": "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?"

3. Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges

Borges’ stories are little universes unto themselves: the perfect cure for the tedium of island confinement. They’re also so densely crammed with allusions that reading this collection is like reading ten books in one.

4. The Collected Stories, Grace Paley

The funniest and most humane short story writer I know.

5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald 

A good book about loneliness and gazing across water.


Ten Runners-Up:

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

The Rubáiyát, Omar Khayyám, Edward FitzGerald trans.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pevear and Volokhonsky trans.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, any decent translation

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

The Collected Poems, W. B. Yeats

The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

The King James Bible (for the poetry)

The Complete Works, Oscar Wilde (for the spirituality)

The Odyssey, Homer


[Note: Because compulsive listmakers are also compulsive tinkerers, this post was revised and updated around 9:30 pm EST. Image via Shutterstock.]


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