A post at CultureSpace (picking up where a popular blog/LiveJournal meme left off) meditates on the idea of favorite books for a person stuck on a desert island, and this idea is one I'm quite fond of -- and not just because I recently played Caliban in a production of The Tempest.
Of course, the best answer to "What book would you want to be stuck with on a desert island?" is "A book about how to build a raft, survive in the tropics, and find food in unlikely places." But this isn't a reality show, it's an intellectual game, and, maligned as they are by haters of postmodern trickery, I like intellectual games.
There are lots of challenges hidden in the question. Define "book", after all. Does all of Remembrance of Things Past count? Because if all of it does, that's a lot of reading for one title. I'm certainly never going to get to it without being stuck on a desert island...
And are they any five books, or should there limits? Five books of fiction, for instance. That certainly makes choosing things slightly less difficult, although it unfortunately excludes Shakespeare. Nonetheless, it would make one choice easier: I wouldn't have to choose between Samuel Beckett's fiction and plays, which I love equally and differently -- I'd be forced to choose the fiction, and would probably go with the trilogy, because I love the last pages of The Unnamable, and the three books together have lots of pages, a useful fact if, on a cold night, I need fuel for the fire.
Reading Samuel Beckett on a desert island. That's an amusing image.
I first encountered the idea of desert island books when I was in high school and my favorite English teacher told me he thought that, were he stuck on a desert island and could only have one book with him, he'd choose Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I agreed, until I got to college and discovered Faulkner, and decided that my choice would be Absalom, Absalom!, a book I threw across the room three times when I first read it, and then, having finished it, returned to read again, this time compulsively, seldom letting it out of my hands or sight.
Being limited to one book, though, seems uncharitable. Especially since I don't much care for the ocean or sun. A tropical island would be absolute torture for me. Therefore, I think I'd need to have a whole trunk of books wash ashore, or else I'd just die quickly from literary withdrawal and too much exposure to things that are supposed to be good for you, like beaches.
Tempted as I am to list a trunkload of books rather than five, that loses some of the fun of this exercise. The fun is in the impossibility, the difficulty, the straining. Therefore, I will limit myself to no more than ten books of any sort, with five places specifically reserved for fiction, because the LitBlog Co-Op is all about fiction. I will also limit myself to books that actually exist in one volume (proved with a Powells link), so no cheating with Proust.
FictionThere's so much missing! What if I get to the island and suddenly realize that I really don't like Stevie Smith's poems as much as I think I do today?! Today I think they're funny and strange and amusing and clever and unpretentious, but by the time I get to the island I might think they're kind of dumb and I really should have put Frank O'Hara there instead. And no art books? No Van Gogh or Picasso or Max Ernst or "Far Side" or "Calvin & Hobbes"? Will FedEx deliver to a desert island?
Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme
The Chekhov Omnibus by Anton Chekhov
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
Other Than Fiction
Georg Buchner: Complete Plays and Prose (although I just got the new edition of Buchner's Lenz from Archipelago Books, and I'm not sure I would ever want to live without this particular edition, but "Lenz" is fiction, and I do so love the plays, and...)
Paul Celan: Selections translated and edited by Pierre Joris
Complete Works (Arden Edition) by William Shakespeare
Collected Poems by Stevie Smith
Walden, etc. by Henry David Thoreau
Strangely, the fiction was easier to choose. While certainly I would miss hundreds of authors I wasn't able to include, I do think I could survive quite happily for the rest of my life if I only had those five books of fiction to sustain me. Barthelme's stories are some of the most purely delightful I know, Chekhov's are the most perfect, Absalom and Mrs. Dalloway are both books I've read multiple times and felt I could read again and again and again, and City of Saints and Madmen is not only written by a friend whom I would want to remember, but is vastly entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautiful.
When I get to the end of exercises like this, I'm left with one overwhelming feeling: I am immensely grateful that I do not have to choose to live the rest of my life with only five or ten books. Let the publishers publish more, let the writers write more -- I'm all in favor of an endless supply!