Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Desert Island

If you were going to be stranded on a desert island, what books would you hope were packed in the bags that floated ashore with you? Not the most original question, but always fun, and it does take some thought. The rules are loose. Collections are allowed. Ten fiction, ten non-fiction, plus three miscellaneous.


1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Because it is hands down the best single volume history book I have ever read. Large personalities, personal drama, commando raids, last minute escapes, brilliant scientists and some of the most compelling, detailed but understandable, physics imaginable, all with the backdrop of WWII. Rhodes never needed to write another book. I learned more from him than any other author except Will Durant, and that was after already reading a number of books on the bomb. If you love history, or even just WWII history, read it. You will generally understand how an atomic bomb gets made and why it goes boom after you are done and actually have a good time on the way. Ironically, I never read his follow up, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.

2. The Snow Leopard: Published the same year as The Making of the Atomic Bomb, it thrills in a completely different way. It is the personal journey of the adventurer/author, Peter Matthiessen, to Tibet, after his wife died, ostensibly in search of the snow leopard. It is his evocative natural descriptions, the unpretentiousness of the Sherpa guides, the Buddhist lore, and his somewhat strained relationship with naturalist George Schaller that make this a frequent re-reader for me. Puts me at peace, it does.

3. Will Durant’s Story of Civilization (11 Volumes): It makes me sad that these books are so rarely read today. No historian has ever written as well, and I am not sure anyone has ever had the depth of historical knowledge he did. There is no filler material in these books, but the more impressive aspect is the synthesis he brings to each topic. The perfectly written philosophical renderings at the beginnings and end of chapters could make a book themselves. Of course, as Durant says, you can’t read everything (although he comes closer than anyone else I know), so if you can only take a few volumes on your island, I recommend the first four, Our Oriental Heritage, The Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ and The Age of Faith.

4. The Library of America’s Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (2 volumes): I have read the Lincoln/Douglas debates over and over. His humor, self deprecation, logic, eloquence and passion run amok in these two volumes. Sissy that I am, I got tears in my eyes the first time I read his thoughtful letter to a mother explaining the death of her sons during the war (featured in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) and laughed out loud during his letter explaining how an early romance went awry. His speech at Cooper Union, the First and Second Inaugural, letters to his generals, political correspondents and friends are all here and mostly gems. You can learn as much or more about Lincoln in this collection as in a full biography.

5. Herodotus’ The Histories: This is where it all started for the western civilization in terms of recorded history. For me as well, when I jump started my reintroduction to history at age 19 by speeding through Herodotus’ unprecedented review of the Persian/Greek conflict with side trips to Egypt and other civilizations. Watching the great traveler reason out what must be myth and what history is enthralling. My only doubt is that I may have put this down too far on the list.

6. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy: The only writer who makes it twice, this small volume, available in paperback, makes philosophers we wish we had the patience to read, available and comprehensible. The chapters on Plato, Schopenhauer and Spinoza are favorites, but each one shines. He plays no favorites, and you get the best and worst of each of these deep thinkers.

7. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: The second book I remember reading (the first being Joy Adamson’s Born Free), and one that helped form my personality, likes and dislikes, as will be seen in the fiction list below. Hamilton is a modern day Ovid. Why do I like it better than Bullfinch’s Mythology or the several mythological encyclopedias I own? Maybe because it was the first one I read, but I think there is more to it than that. Something magical here.

8. Lucretius’ On Nature: Not nearly so old as Herodotus, but considerably before Christ, Lucretius wrote this tour de force in verse. Of course, he was wrong about many things, but it’s the reasoning process without the benefits of modern science that makes this poem so phenomenal. Glean from it an ancient Roman's view on atoms, multiple worlds, psychology, the soul, the fear of death, the senses, love, the formation of the universe, the beginnings of life, people and civilizations, and even a bit on the weather.

9. Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: An early book by this best selling travel (and now science) writer. Bryson, who, unlike all other writers on this list except Matthiessen, is very much alive, and would make a great guest on the island. Here he tracks the English language and its changes over time. I learned some of my favorite words from him, including velleity, a mild desire to do something that leads to no action. Also aposiopesis, the sudden breaking off of thought, which is my most annoying mental problem -- what was I saying? Given the depth of the other books on this list, this might be too modern and a mistake. But it feels right.

10. Any comprehensive encyclopedic dictionary. Still have to look up some words, and it’s almost like having an almanac with you. I started off reading dictionaries as a kid, and still sleep with one on my bed (possibly one reason I’m alone).


1. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: If you have read it, you know why it is first here. Maybe even if you have just seen the movies. It works as a swashbuckler, a rendering of Norse and Germanic mythology and culture, as a linguistic puzzle, as philosophy, a tale of good and evil, and as just great writing. Those who love it are astonished that there are those who don’t. My favorite LOTR moment: When Frodo is whining about having to suffer through the evil he faces and Gandalf replies: “So do I . . . and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

2. The Once and Future King: There was a time when I thought these four volumes were better than The Lord of the Rings. I was wrong, but it is great nonetheless. Caveat: Do not, I repeat, do not read the Fifth Volume, the Book of Merlin, which was not published during T.H. White’s lifetime. It was awful. Worse than awful, and not a true sequel. As with Tolkien’s Hobbit, the first volume of TOFK, The Sword and the Stone (where the Disney movie of the same title comes from), seemed to be written for children, but the seriousness of the books grew as the number of volumes did. Another tip. Find a separate copy of The Sword and The Stone because it contains an original combat scene between Merlin and a witch, Madame Mim, which was for some strange reason left out when the four volumes were combined to be sold as a single unit.

3. The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). Originally written in Old German, this is a breathtaking saga of swords, magic and revenge. The great hero, Sigurd, Brunhilde, the formidable love interest, Attila the Hun, even Theodoric and Hildebrandt play a role. Same basic story source as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, if that is more familiar. Magic dwarves, rings, swords, dragons. I probably am not going to wait for the island to read it again.

4. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The first prose ever written, as far as we know. How this Babylonian tale of its great king-villain-hero is still so little known, amazes me. It has the first version of the Noah story, evil goddesses, sex and a search for immortality. Most of all, it is the story of the friendship between Gilgamesh and the half animal/half human, Ekidnu, originally created to destroy him. That’s packing a lot in for the first novel ever.

5. The Iliad. You couldn’t pay me to see the recent movie, Troy. Some things shouldn’t be messed with and The Iliad is one of them. I’d make an exception for Masterpiece Theatre or Peter Jackson. Here’s the quickie version. Tenth year of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks because a Trojan prince, with a little help from the goddess of love, steals a Greek king’s wife (you have probably heard of Helen of Troy, if nothing else). The story actually starts because the high king of the Greeks infuriates their greatest warrior, Achilles, by taking his slave girl, and Achilles refuses to fight anymore. But when his close friend, dressed in Achilles’ armor, is killed, Achilles goes all Bruce Lee on the Trojans and kills their great prince, Hector. Odysseus, Diomedes, the Greater and Lesser Ajax, and other dynamic Greek heroes vie for honors. The goddess Aphroditeeven blackmails Helen into having sex with her new husband and the Goddess Hera seduces Zeus so the other gods can kick some ass. Odysseus outfoxes everyone. What’s not here? Achilles’ death and The Trojan Horse. If someone named Homer actually existed, and wrote about that too, we don’t have it, and have to rely on other versions.

6. The Odyssey. What happened to Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War? He had a really bad decade, but gets home in time to rescue his wife from her suitors and his son from death. Meet the Cyclops and Kirke, a prototype witch. Who’s the real hero, Odysseus or prudent Penelope who fended off the suitors while remaining faithful to her husband? I’m going with Odysseus because he’s pretty much the last of a dying breed of superhumans, whereas Penelope is merely admirable.

7. Speaking of Shakespeare (someone is somewhere) -- an annotated Shakespeare collection: I’m not sure if it matters very much which complete Shakespeare you go with, but I am selecting the 1988 Rouse edition. If any writer has the reputation to speak for himself, Shakespeare does and we will not belabor it here.

8. Three Complete Novels: John Le Carre: The Smiley trilogy all wrapped up in one book. This is the cold war classic literature. Too show you how good Le Carre was at his best, go into any bookstore, find a spy novel, and read the dust jacket. Somewhere in it there will be a reference to the “new Le Carre” or something like that. That’s like comparing mid-western pizza with New York pizza – pointless, and practically an insult.

9. The Three Musketeers corpus: By that, I mean all five volumes in Dumas’ classic story. TTM is actually only the first fifth of the entire tale, the best other volumes being Ten Years After and The Man in the Iron Mask. But TTM is the best, the most action packed, the most mysterious and the funniest. I’ve read it three times and have yet to tire of it.

10. The Leatherstocking Tales: Cooper’s early American epic is another five version job, only three of which are worth it: The Deerkiller, The Pathfinder and The Last of the Mohicans, all tracing the life of Natty Bumppo, a/k/a, Hawkeye. Since this island is a fantasy, let’s pretend you can get all three volumes together without the other two. In real life you can’t. The Library of America puts all five together, although it’s well over a hundred bucks. The recent movie, The Last of the Mohicans, was great in its own way, but completely distorted Natty’s character. In the books, he was tall, thin, ugly, and about as spiritual as you can get and still be a stone dead killer with a long rifle, or La Longue Carabine, as the French and Indians called it.

Miscellaneous: I also want an annotated Bible and, if possible, presuming one exists, an English version of Tthe Mahabharata, which is the Indian Bible, so to speak, although 40 times longer than its Canaanite cousin. I’ve never read it, except for the small part called the Bagavad Gita or Song of God, and a short children’s version of the whole book. I figure it should take me the rest of my life to read the rest, but I expect it will be worth it.

You have to leave some books out, or there is no point to this fantasy, but never reading the Flashman series again is too much to bear. So, it’s coming along too. They are, without fear of intelligent objection, the best historical novels ever written, and the multi-language speaking, horse back riding yellow belly, rogue and hero Flashman, one of the great creations of modern literature. Go Flashy, go.

Last, give me a subscription to The New York Times, dropped by plane each morning, and I’m a happy man. You can read what you like on your island.


  1. I'm more amazed by what we have in common than what would be different: the snow leopard, Edith Hamilton, a dictionary (though I would specify the OED, which may well take a lifetime to read), Tolkien, Willy-boy, Homer (though I would only include the Iliad). By the by, I believe you are mistaken, Achilles death is in there. And of course, the Bible. I would not count a newspaper as a book, that was cheating on your own rules. I know, tough noogies. 7 out of 23 is still pretty amazing. And yes, you have inspired me to list my own... coming soon.

    1. I can't believe I never replied to that. Well, several years too late, no, his death is not in there. Patroklos's death is and many others, but not Achilles'. He was supposed to have been killed by Paris, the seducer of Helen and Hektor's brother, after the events told in the Iliad.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .