You’re visiting this website because you love books, and you’re probably hoping to come across some interesting books to add to your “to read” list (as if it isn’t long enough already). But consider the many books you’ve already read or really want to read. If you were to be placed on a desert island with ten or so books, what would they be?
I recently ran across a website that features desert island reading lists by a vast range of people. It’s called One Grand and it also happens to be the name of the upstate New York book store owned by Aaron Hicklin, the man who started the website. The New York Times even featured an article on Hicklin and his book shop back in 2015.
Another good source for books you might want to have on your island is Five Books. Each entry at this website is associated with a particular subject rather than a particular person’s interests. You name the subject and there’s probably an article on it authored by an expert. One of the nice things is that there is a general description of the subject followed by fairly in-depth descriptions of the recommended books and why they are recommended. And you’ll often find ideas in the articles that make you think. For instance, in author Philip Davis’ recommendation of books by and about novelist George Eliot he states that, “We write biographies as if they could take the place of novels, yet they can’t: novels offer more truths than biographies ever can.” I never thought about that, but I think he’s right.
Just for the fun of it, I want to list some of the books I would like to have with me on a desert island. I would want many of them to be long and dense with ideas because I might be on that island for a long time, and I don’t want to become board with any book after only one or two readings. With that in mind I would want the following books as companions:
The Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald M. Frame) – Montaigne is often called the father of the essay form and I have thoroughly enjoyed the essays (on a wide range of subject) that I have read. When you read his essays you really have to pay attention. And at least in my case, I can read them two or three times before I feel that I have a clear understanding of what he wrote. He was a very deep thinker who revised his essays over a period of many years as his ideas and understanding changed.
History of the Persian Wars (aka The Histories) by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey De Selincourt) – Cicero called Herodotus the father of history. I’ve read The Histories once, but there’s too much to absorb in a single reading. His primary purpose is to tell us about the wars between Greece and Persia, but he also delves into the customs of other countries and much, much more. Some of his “facts” aren’t very factual, but others are absolutely correct. For instance he talks about ants that can run down and kill a camel. Not so. He also talks about how, contrary to many rivers, the Nile has its peak flow during the summer months. That’s true due to the fact that the water comes from the rain forests of Central Africa – with most of the rain falling during the summer monsoon season. As Arthur A. Rupprecht put it in Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, “Herodotus includes speeches that cannot have been made and encounters that cannot have taken place. But what he provides, in the end, is a history true to the spirit of the events if not always to factual details. He writes a good story.” In fact, he writes a great story.
Caesar and Christ by Will Durant – I’d love to have the complete set of The Story of Civilization, but I’m limiting myself to a single volume from any set. Will Durant wrote some of the most interesting books on history that you’ll ever find. He has been trashed by historians in part because of the sources he used (or didn’t use), but his books are a great introduction to history for those who want interesting anecdotes and background information rather than just dates and dry facts. This particular book discusses many of the Roman rulers such as Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero in a way that will hold you spellbound. The book also discusses Christ and is an excellent account of His life and of the period in which He lived. With Will Durant history is never boring.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare – I love the story, and the dialogue between Petruchio and Katharina is truly a work of genius. And much of the action between the lovers is very physical. This is one of the greatest comedies ever written. My only problem with the play is the idea that a man could turn a shrew like Katharina into a docile woman. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as a docile woman.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens – This is not Dickens’ best known novel, but I love it. It’s long and contains numerous plots and subplots. You have Inspector Bucket, an early example of a detective in fiction; Nemo (“nobody” in Latin), a mysterious character who plays a small but important part in the story; Lady Dedlock, a beautiful, wealthy woman who has a mysterious secret that could destroy her life of privilege; members of the Jarndice family who are fighting a protracted court battle over an inheritance; and even a man who dies when he spontaneously combusts.
The libretto of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto – I had to sneak something musical in somehow. The music is spectacular as is the story of a hunchbacked court jester whose daughter is seduced by his boss, the Duke of Mantua. I assume that I wouldn’t have access to music, so this libretto would be my guide to the music and action of the opera that I would hear in my head. To me Verdi is the greatest of all opera composers, and Rigoletto is my favorite among his many great works.
I would also want to have some books with stories that are simply entertaining for those times when I got tired of Montaigne’s brilliance and the antics of the Caesars. So what follows might be called my “guilty pleasures.”
The Godfather by Mario Puzo – I’ve read the novel and seen the movie, but I never get tired of the story. I think I could read this novel over and over and still enjoy it. Of course, the characters in the book would look like the characters in the movie, but that’s fine with me. And the movie music, composed by Nino Rota, would play in my head as I read the book.
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser – Harry Flashman first appeared in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days. Flashman is a cowardly bully who antagonizes Tom. According to Fraser, when he becomes an adult Flashman leads a hedonistic, lecherous life then writes his memoirs: memoirs (referred to collectively as the Flashman Papers) in which he candidly describes, without shame or remorse, all of the despicable things he has done. His memoirs turn into a series of books with each having a story embedded in actual historical events. Flashman, the first in the series, takes place, in part, during the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1841, which was a total disaster for the British.
I would like to take at least ten books with me to my desert island, but I see that I’m a few books short. I’ll keep reading and hoping that I’ll find more books to add to my list.
Do you have any suggestions?