You know how it goes: which 8 gramophone (they don’t actually still use that wonderfully archaic word, I don’t think, but it used to be there) records would you take to your desert island?
And lately, there’s been a variation on the theme of a well-known (ostensibly …) person being invited to name the 8 pieces of music to take to their island with the choices of the ordinary public experiencing our current lockdown/crisis/whichever word you choose to use for the place we have been in since mid-March – being discussed, chosen and played.
Which has led me to think of the far more crucial, absolutely life-saving, enhancing role that books would play in such a castaway situation. Music – well, all very well and extremely nice as an optional extra – but books! To spend time in an isolated place or on an island as a solitary soul would be utterly impossible without the written word.
Without wonderful stories and admirable phrases and the rhythm and structure of sentences and the cadence of words. For the insights into human nature in all its frailty and foolishness that novels offer – deprivation of such essential items would be a non-starter.
But if you could only take 8 books to your desert island when suitably cast away, which would they be?
For me, I think it has to come down to what I could not – or would not choose – to live without.
Taking new books never read would be all very well – but supposing you read the first page or two of those new novels selected and find you don’t like any of them very much? That you can feel no empathy for the characters and little interest in the line of story? Desolation would set in at the waste of such a precious commodity.
You would be back to square 1 of intolerable solitariness and seeking starfish for company.
So my plan is for the tried and tested.
On the whole at least.
I am mostly choosing the books I love and have read and re-read and can continue to re-read for the days, weeks and potential months on my desert island. So here goes – in no particular order:
Jane Eyre – I first read Charlotte Bronte’s novel as my ‘O’ level literature text many decades ago. Since then, I have taught it countless times – consequently re-reading it and studying it again and again. And that opening sentence never fails to grab me. It simply makes me want to read on – even though I know what’s coming next: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Middlemarch –George Eliot’s weighty tome is simply one of my favourite novels. Every time I re-read it I find something new, something interesting. It manages to be so much. It’s a wonderful study in human nature – Dorothea’s self-delusion, her unhappiness, her eventual clarity of mind. It’s full of social and political history – the reform bill, rotten boroughs and the lot. It’s a study of local politics. It looks at corruption, fate, fortunes and, of course, the vagaries of love.
And it’s 900 and more pages so enough to occupy many days under the palm trees.
Lord of the Flies – If I love the opening sentence of some books, it’s the ending of William Golding’s extraordinary novel that never leaves me. Again, I’ve read it and taught it constant times – and re-read it alongside my son when it was his GCSE Literature text – and that phrase about the darkness of man’s heart – well, turn to the last page and remind yourselves. And the novel would also bring the consolation that I was alone on my island rather than in the company of a boys, many of whom have turned feral and savage …!
The Great Gatsby – I dithered about this one as it’s so short – I’ll read it while I’m searching for a windfall mango for breakfast – but it is also so perfect because of its brevity and I simply have to have it for Fitzgerald’s writing – not sure whether it’s the opening or the closing that most impresses: tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further – and one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Yes, the ending is so perfect, the sentiment as well as the rhythm of the writing.
Bleak House – or Hard Times – at last novels that I haven’t read. It would be too easy to take a Dickens novel that I have read and loved –Great Expectations would be hard to leave out – but I’ll given myself something new for the novelty of it as I’ve always meant to read these two.
The Hours – Michael Cunningham’s powerful novel – and this time it’s definitely for the last 2 pages – not that it isn’t pretty impressive earlier on. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so. No doubt about it, I will need this on my desert island to remind me of why I need to keep trying to build a boat to escape …
With only two choices remaining, how do I possibly make the selection? I have not yet named a Jane Austen (Emma or Mansfield Park?) or a Thomas Hardy ( Tess or Bathsheba Everdene?)or one of those lengthy Russian novels I have always been meaning to read.
And I need Anita Brookner (Lewis Percy, probably) Penelope Lively (Perfect Happiness or Passing on ) and, of course, Carol Shields (Unless or The Stone Diaries) and numerous more writers whose names will come urgently to mind the moment I press the button to publish this blog.
And then there are my intentions – long held – to read the whole of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – the entire 12 novel sequence – which, of course, would actually be cheating, counting 12 books as 1 …
And there’s Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale – read years ago and always on my list of books to re-read with Constance and Sophia such memorable sisters. And …and …
Of course, as a castaway I will get Shakespeare and the bible thrown in for good luck which is excellent as that has poetry covered (I am assuming I get a complete Shakespeare with the sonnets included) and I have to insist on the King James’ version of the bible rather than a modern one that plays shamefully roughshod over the beauty of the language.
My luxury item could, perhaps, solve my dilemma.
Although I will naturally ask for endless paper and a huge supply of long-lasting pens, I might be tempted to sneak in something to subvert the rules somewhat.
The contents of my bookshelves. All of them. Both fiction and non-fiction.
Yes, as my luxury item, this would actually be ideal.
After all, it’s worked wonders for my spirits and well-being during our current crisis and imposed lockdown …
So what would be the books that you can’t live without? When you are cast away to that mythical desert island, what would you rescue from the waves to keep you company during the sultry days and nights of this tropical paradise?
I’d love to know.