Sunday, February 25, 2007

Desert Island Books

Desert Island Discs has been the accompaniment to my preparation of Sunday lunch for many years. While it is a fascinating glimpse into other people's lives, I always consider peeling potatoes and basting the roast preferable to trying to select only eight significant pieces of music. I would find it even more difficult to have to select my favourite books, which is why I won't be voting in the World Book Day survey.

The Daily Telegraph has been conducting its own survey of the books its readers can't live without. The stated purpose is to see if we still favour the classics or have 'dumbed down' in our literary tastes. I expect that Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, The Wisdom of Insecurity and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will retain their places in the top ten. But what does it all signify? That the same people bother to take part every year? That tastes remain static? That people say what they think they ought to say?

Every room in our house looks like this; the prospect of packing our books is what is holding up our plans to move house. With the spirit of the World Book Day in mind, I tried to select ten favourites. That proved impossible, so I thought, "Which books would you grab if the house were on fire?" That brought a surprising reaction: I discovered I would rescue the family photograph albums and all the scrapbooks we made when the children were small and then I would go for books with sentimental attachment.

So, my approach would be a kind of Desert Island Books. I would select books with memories attached, the choice being purely sentimental and having nothing at all to do with their literary or academic merit.

  • From my own childhood, I would take Alice in Wonderland because this was the first book that I bought for myself. I can vividly recall going into the shop and proffering the five shillings I had been given for my seventh birthday.
  • From my schooldays, I would take Northanger Abbey because that was my first encounter with Jane Austen and the start of a life-time's devotion to her work.
  • How to represent my student days? The metaphysical poets? A modern novelist? Eliot, Hopkins, Donne? Ruskin , Carlyle or John Henry Newman? I'll take the Collected works of T S Eliot because that volume was given to me by a special friend and Sartor Resartus because it influenced my thinking in those days.
  • My beautifully bound and illustrated Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, given to me by my husband on our wedding day, is a must.
  • Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Pigling Bland plays an important part in the story of my marriage, so that would have to go with me.
  • The Wind in the Willows would recall the magical early days with my children.
  • The Linguistics of British Sign Language by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll would provide keep the professional part of my brain active and help me keep up my signing skills.
  • My breviary would provide for my spiritual needs and it would also boost the literary section with its collection of psalms and poetry.
  • I would have to have Calling of a Cuckoo by David Jenkins because it is the book I would have written if I had his talent.

That was a really painful exercise and I want to go back and change all my selections but I do have other things to do today. I hope my house never catches fire because I would hate to have to make real choices.

I'd be interested to hear about other people's significant books, rather than their favourites or most admired. Or how about the book you wish you had written?


  1. My house looks like that. Question: how many of those books have you read? (I probably own 8 books for every 1 I've read)

    People rarely read a book twice, so the question is a tough one. I would end up selecting from the many books that I've planned on reading someday but never gotten around to. But that's not a good way to judge, because I might find out that they aren't worth it.

    As a youth I read a log of Edgar Allan Poe and H P Lovecraft. I was a pretty dark youth, it seems.

    My fiction reading tended toward horror and Sci Fi, which mostly wasn't very memorable. But I was fascinated by the move 2001: a Space Odyssey, which I saw when it first came out, so I read a lot of Arthur C Clarke. It's hard for me to re-generate any enghusiasm for those early "literary" passions.

    In college I caught a bug for Hermann Hesse, also Joyce, mainly Dubliners & Ulyssees. I swear one day I will finish that book.

    I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes collection, I guess I would save that. Also, my complete Shakespeare, of course.

    I enjoyed "Herzog" by Saul Bellow. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

  2. I've probably read all of the fiction and tend to keep only those I consider worth reading again 'someday.' I do go back to Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell and Anthony Trollope on a fairly regular basis but modern novels tend to get a single reading.

    I loved Edgar Allan Poe when I was a teenager and liked to terrify myself. I also share your liking of Sherlock Holmes but not sci fi.

    Most of our books are reference or non-fiction. Some have been read cover-to-cover, but most will have been skimmed or dipped into. I've just had a quick scan of the shelves and couldn't find any that hadn't been read at all by either my husband or me, but then we have just recently retired and have lots of time to indulge our mutual love of books. That 'someday' does come around eventually!

    Happy reading.

  3. This is very difficult: do you go for emotional attachment, most impressive reads, books you can re-read without getting bored, etc?

    I'll go for emotional attachment:

    The Wind in the Willows
    Rhymes without Reason by Mervyn Peake
    The Pickwick Papers
    Lord of the Rings
    The complete Aubrey-Maturin in one volume
    The Oxford English Verse
    A Singular Man by J P Donleavy
    Wisden Cricketers Almanac 2006 (with the 2005 Ashes review)

  4. I think Aubrey-Maturin in one volume is cheating!

  5. Brit likes to cheat. He refuses to rhyme.

  6. I also chose nine - a further crime.

  7. Look again - you'll see I have ten!

    I generally claim credit for my children's brains and good looks but not for their ignorance of rhyme.


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