Monday, February 10, 2014

Desert Island Books

For those of you who don't know the BBC has a long running radio series called Desert Island Discs which features a celebrity who is asked to imagine themselves shipwrecked on a desert island with only seven records to listen to until rescue comes (if it ever does come). A similar game is often played with books. If you could only have 7 (or in my case below 10) books to read for a long time (possibly forever) what would those books be? A lot of people playing this game pick short novels which I think is ridiculous. I take the game literally - you want something which is going to last a long time. Only the final book on my list has under 700 pages and most of them are over 1000, which has got to be the way to go. You also probably want something that you've read already so that you know it's going to be good. Anthologies are a good bet and 1 volume trilogies are also a good idea too. But just to be clear about the rules it has to be in one volume. To make it more interesting let's say (as they do on the BBC) that the island already has a copy of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Let's also say that it's got The Boy Scout Manual/SAS Survival Manual/Boat Building For Beginners and practical things like that. Does that make sense? Your Kindle's dead, your iPhone's toast, a box of books washes up on the shore...Ok here's my list:

1. The Complete Essays of George Orwell: 1400 brilliant pages published by the Everyman Library.
2. The Complete Jane Austen - all 6 novels plus Lady Susan in this clunky but good value Barnes and Noble edition. 
3. The Norton Anthology of English Poetry: the fifth edition is simply the best anthology of poetry in the world. 2812 pages. Nice.
4. The Complete Stories of JG Ballard: 1199 pages of Ballard's best.
5. Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s. The Library of America brings you five classics of 1950s crime: Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Chester Himes
6. The Worst Journey In The World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard's stunning Antarctica adventure/nightmare.
7. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - The Modern Library's 1300 page 1 volume edition of Gibbon's classic.
8. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth's classic novel. A juicy 1488 pages long.
9. The Brothers Karamazov - Simply the greatest novel of the 19th century. 960 pages in the Penguin Edition. Written by Dostoyevsky trans by David McDuff.
10 (tied). Ulysses - James Joyce. Ok I don't think I need to add anything here.
10 (tied). The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin - Because the Norton Anthology just doesn't have enough of them...

I'd love to hear your thoughts/suggestions in the comments below:

37 comments:

Unknown said...

Moby Dick
David Copperfield
And to slow down reading so it takes longer:
Darwin, ORIGIN OF SPECIES
Marx, DAS CAPITAL
Mrs. Beeton, HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT

Grandad

Alan said...

Adrian,Decline and Fall,Buddhist Tripaka,Analects,Brothers K and lastly collected works of Thomas Mann.I like your Erasmus like diversity but as I age I turn to those which had the most emotional and intellectual impact upon me.Best Alan P.S. Posted review of In The Morning on Amazon UK.

seana graham said...

I like your list. I would put in Finnegans Wake instead of Ulysses, on the theory that puzzling this one out would last me forever. I would also consider putting in Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence and/or Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Conor said...

A few Patrick O'Brians; Master and Commander, Desolation Island (if the shoe fits) and The Thirteen Gun Salute. A killer to limit myself.

Paul Durcan's Life is a Dream: Forty Years of Reading Poetry (a really wonderful collected works).

PG Wodehouse, Blandings Omnibus

A Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (a satisfying 1120 pages in my edition)

Seamus Heaney/Dennis O'Driscoll, Stepping Stones (book length interview with Heaney, marvellous)

Ulysses

Tony Judt, Thinking the 20th Century

Slight cheat here as I'm presuming by the time I get marooned, Hilary Mantel's publishers will helpfully have brought an omnibus of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light

That's ten, but I might switch two out for:

Beckett, The Complete Plays (while I'm waiting)

Bono by Bono, the autobiography (2016). This to finish me off

adrian mckinty said...

John

Moby Dick. Good call, especially in the Norton Critical edition that has the map and the diagram of the ship and the letters to Hawthorn.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Can you get Thomas Mann in 1 vol. I know that some of them though are enormous. I like the Buddhist idea too, maybe get some perspective.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Barzun! I cd read and reread that one dozens of times. In fact I might start again tonight.

adrian mckinty said...

Conor

All good stuff. I've never actually read a Patrick OBrian but I've listened to them all on audio 3 times. Narrated by Tull of course.

Good call too on Wodehouse. Youd need a laugh. Bono wd also be a gd read when you're welling up the courage to top yourself.

Alan said...

Arian,Regrettably you are right. Thomas Mann works do not come in one volume. I guess while I am looking for select works of Mann, I will have to postpone my desert island venture.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Joseph and his Brothers is pretty long though isnt it?

seana graham said...

Joseph and his brothers is indeed pretty long, but it would be good if you could somehow squeeze it into one volume.

Speaking of Barzun, I happened to notice an unfamiliar book on my shelves the other night--and when I pulled it out it turned out be by Carolyn Heilbrun and was called When Men Were the Only Models We Had: My Teachers Barzun, Fadiman and Trilling. Her chapters on him begin with her attending a talk based on the not quite yet published From Dawn to Decadence, which Barzun had delayed to make last minute corrections. She writes "To those who equate formality with arrogance, he often seemed off putting in manner. To me, however, he has been the kindest of men."

Mark English said...

We love writers who gave us wonderful experiences, but it's the experiences that count, not necessarily the books. For example, I'll never read certain books written by (an older version of) the girl in the photo with the same pleasure that I got from my first reading. And this applies, I fear, to so many novels.

But Balzac and Proust I could happily revisit. And some really old stuff. The works of Ovid? Apuleius?

Also perhaps a couple of mid-20th century positivistic tracts, as I am rather partial to the occasional dose of arrogant scientism (unlike Barzun!).

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Barzun seems like the sort of chap who could have held his own at dinner with Thomas Jefferson or Churchill. In fact that wd be a pretty gd dinner with all 3.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

Oh Ovid's very rereadable surely. I would have thought Virgil too. In fact one of those little green classics books with the Latin on one side and the English on the other might be the perfect book for stopping insanity on a desert island.

adrian mckinty said...

Conor

Incidentally I just listened to the Judt as an audio - completely excellent. My 3rd Tony Judt audiobook.

So the next Wolf Hall has a title eh? Bringing Up The Bodies was one of the most exciting books thrillers I read last year. Cromwell's Godfather style revenge at the end - massive.

Frederic Wright said...

More than 10 books I know but...The Bible(KJV),The Collected Shakespeare,All of Tolstoi,All of Nietzsche,The Norton Anthology of English Poetry and finally because I'm a 20th century American the collected works of Robert Stone(my favourite writer)who best delineates both the triumph and the tragedy of America in my lifetime.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I’m not sure whether its publication history qualifies it for this game, but I would suggest the Vinatage edition of The Man Without Qualities--a witty, scary dissection of what would go wrong with the twentieth century in Europe, all in 752 tidy pages.

There is no one-volume edition of the novel, possibly because Musil never got around to finishing the damned thing. A second volume contains more of the book plus notes, sketches, alternate chapters, and so on.

Or how about the 646-page Levenger edition of Dr, Johnson's dictionary? This may be the best book all for your list, because it is so full of illustrative quotations from other writers.

And if you're throwing in crime fiction from the Library of America, you could include the 934-page Crime Stories and Other Writings by Dashiell Hammett.
=================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, if you meant the Loeb Classical Library, it's the red ones that have Latin facing English. The green ones have Greek. I assumes this is a little joke, R for red and Roman, G for green and Greek, but I could be wrong.

I never knew the Modern Library published a one-volume edition of The Decline and Fall; I knew it had published two- and three-volume complete editions. But surely the one on your list can't the whole thing, at just 1,300 pages? The two-volume edition runs to about 2,700 pages (and it remains the longest book I have ever read, if we're boasting about length).

If a one-volume edition saves space by, say, eliminating Gibbons' footnotes, you should leave it home. His footnotes are among the most enlightening and entertaining parts of the work.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, at a svelte 672 pages, could be the way to go for Wodehouse, as it offers selections from all his series of stories, plus one novel.

The Bono book could be good, though not for the reason that you naysayers suggest. Your desert island strandee could read it for consolation and say "O, brave new world that has no such arseholes in it."

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Of course you are correct it must be the red books not the green ones. I my defence I am red/green colour blind.

My 1 volume Gibbon is abridged, I wonder if it was the Penguin one (its in a storage locker) but I do remember that it was abridged really well, in that it was funny and fast and yet I didnt get the feeling that I missed much.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The Man Without Qualities should be published in a 1 volume edition at least once.

Peter Rozovsky said...

You could be Roman/Greek color-blind: You read Vergil, and you think you're reading Homer.

What would a one-volume edition of The Man Without Qualities include? What Musil published in his lifetime? That plus the remainder of the continuous narrative? The foregoing plus the notes and all alternate and fragmentary chapters?

I'm not even sure all Musil's notes have yet been transcribed and translated, and I did read somewhere during my Musil jones last year that a volume or two of his notes were stolen from a car somewhere.

Parts of Gibbon were a bit of a slog for me, so I can imagine an abridgement working well for people whose flightiness, whose lack of concentration, whose limited attention span permits them to read nothing longer than 1,300 pages.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Musil wd be tricky but I think I cd abridge Gibbon. Keep everything up to 500 AD in the West and the East. They youve got Theodora and all that good stuff in the East. Then Justinian and then the rise of Islam. Keep it all. But then abridge 700AD - 1000AD all those religious disputes. Keep the Crusaders sacking Constantinople and keep Mehmed II's final assault. Probably a brisk 1000 pages there?

adrian mckinty said...

Fred

I like the Robert Stone. I really need to read more of him.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, those are the parts of Gibbon I'd think about trimming. The full version goes over the history of Islam far beyond its rise, and those were some of the parts that dragged for me, though I became curious and read about some of them later. Gibbon might have been losing the thread a bit in those chapters.

With Musil, the problem would be less deciding what to cut than deciding where to end.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Here are two tables of contents for The Decline and Fall to help you build your own print-on-demand edition for Desert Island Discs.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yup with all due respect to the people involved 700 AD - 1000 AD isnt the most interesting period. I think everyone should read the final assault on Constantinople - one of the greatest and most exciting chapters in all literature.

The rumour is that the iPhone 6 is going to have a solar powered screen so if they can make it waterproof too this whole discussion will become moot.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, but if the skies are cloudy on the desert island?

I am also convinced that all consumer electronics are built to break (whether this is planned obsolescence, or the simple calculation that the product will be outmoded in a year, so why build it to last, I don't know) So we still need books.

seana graham said...

A compendium of Mark Twain wouldn't go amiss. I know there's such a thing, because I bought one from a bargain shelf when I was in high school. It's probably in my storage shed somewhere still.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, some publishing house put out two huge volumes of bargain-priced Twain years ago. I have them both at home, and either would make find editions to a small but rich desert island bookshelf.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Fine additions, that is, though the mistake was not a bad one to make.

A one-volume edition of The Thousand and One Nights would be good fun, too. Mine is four volumes, but several good-size abridgements exist.

Brendan O'Leary said...

On one desert island, a mining camp in The Great Western Desert, I found Orwell's collected essays and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist in the camp bookshop.

On another island, a North Sea drilling rig, I read Moby Dick for the third time and finally "got it".

On my Kindle I've got the collected Joseph Conrad until the battery runs out. I'd better finish "In the Morning I'll be Gone" first!

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I was in French Island, Victoria a fortnight ago and found the collected letters of G Orwell in the island's only shop. I bought it for 50c. and its been fantastic.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Maybe Kylie left it there. She has been known to moon under water.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

the perfect pub.

Cant say I'd be happy spending at overnight on French Island. Bit of a shall we say Wicker Man feel....

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