If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island What Three Books Would You Want With You? And, If You’ll Indulge Me, My Three Considered Responses
I have heard (or read) this question (or some variation of it) presented over the years. I vaguely remember reading somewhere or other, about a decade or so ago, that the famed literary critic Harold Bloom’s answer was, as best as memory serves, 1) the King James Version of the Bible, 2) The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and, 3) uh, something else (I can’t remember what, but he may have said three was a wild card), in that order. I suppose that would be the typical answer for a learned man of letters such as Mr. Bloom , and so naturally I more or less adopted it as my own. Not that someone has ever posed that question to me—because no one ever has; or that I’m a learned man of letters—because (no matter how I wish it so) my lack of any degree says I’m not; but I tentatively accepted his erudite response as my own, or at least in my own mind I did.
Then in 2007 upon listening to a podcast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe whilst Dr. Steven Novella and The Rogues were interviewing another famed literary (not to mention political and religious) critic, Christopher Hitchens, I heard that question offered again, to Mr. Hitchens. For a split second I partly expected him to say something along the lines of Mr. Bloom’s answers. Hitchens, however, is no Bloom. Somewhat to my surprise he didn’t name any book and flat out rejected the question by suggesting if he was to accept such a premise he would not actually be choosing for himself but rather have the choice forced upon him.
In complete disclosure of honesty I don’t entirely understand Mr. Hitchens’ point, but in fairness he was put on the spot and answered extemporaneously and with haste as he is so apt to do. Regardless of my understanding, or lack thereof, though, it was the way he said what he did that sounded clever to me. What’s more, it got me to re-think the brain exercise more ponderously and to perhaps alter my own position should such a theoretical query ever be posed to me in the flesh.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
First response: a notebook. Indeed, a notebook; that is to say, a personal computer laptop, with the understanding that all necessary peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements accompany it; it is in new or like-new condition, with a fully charged battery with the ability to be re-charged, with unlimited high-speed broadband access to the Internet, as well as the costs of all on-line subscriptions and purchases fully covered, and so forth. (I suppose a fingerprint ID scanner would be unnecessary in such conditions.) Now, I imagine my having this notebook as my only book on this desert isle is something the average questioner could easily agree to; but what of all these peripherals, auxiliaries, and accoutrements? It’s a modest request. One wouldn’t deny a fellow human being their auxiliary bookmark to go along with what few hardback or paperback yarns they poses on this barren islet would one? The absurdity of answering my analogous hypothetical with a denial doesn’t warrant one more negatively-charged neuron from firing off all helter-skelter, so I hastily move along with my pleasant and orderly thoughts unfettered. With this advanced technological book alone at my disposal I would have not but a mere one (or three) tomes in my clutches, but all the world’s libraries, past, present, and, to some extent, future (though I’m not quite sure how this would work). I would ideally have authorization to not only the digital repositories of any and all e-books, but audio books…or I could even pen my own books. Furthermore, I could have access to periodicals, motion pictures, stills, music, satellite television, news, blogs (of course), podcasts, streaming radio, video games, on-line social networking, weather reports, water temperatures, trading of stocks & bonds, and, most importantly, the ability to book a reservation with some travel agency or the nearest Coast Guard or Navy to extricate me off this unfashionable ocean-encircled wasteland.
Second response: If I’m to take this question literally and I was actually thrust into such an undesired situation, the furthest thing from my mind would be printed “books.” Oh, I do love to read books, but not when life and death are on the line. Pursuing any literary interests in such a socio-economic environment as a godforsaken desert island would have to be put on temporary hiatus, it seems to me. I would most likely spend my time somewhere between acting out Tom Hanks’ character in the film Cast Away and trying to recollect Bear Grylls survival techniques from the Discovery Channel’s TV show Man vs. Wild: oh, I don’t know, basically trying to keep Mr. Death in my pocket by scavenging, foraging, and hunting for food & drink, erecting shelters, protecting my emaciating body from nature’s harsh elements, guarding my atrophying tissues from harmful flora & fauna, and attempting any reasonable means to escape this uncivilized desolate hell-hole while simultaneously remaining unharmed, unscathed, and intact, if at all possible.
Third response: I would think that one posing this question doesn’t mean for the responder to take it literally anyway. It’s a metaphorical inquiry. What the questioner really wants to know is what is so-and-so’s all time favorite book or books; that is to say, what book or books does so-and-so enjoy so much that, given ample leisure time, he or she is willing—desirous even—to read it/them over and over, again and again, and hence might be a possible source of entertainment or mental stimulus the questioner may consider to devote personal time towards during a rare moment of quiet respite. It’s actually a question the recipient ought to be flattered to have been asked as the asker is curious to know what the receiving party’s tastes are on such sublime intellectual matters as “literature.”
In truth, I don’t think such a singular text ever has or ever will exist for me. I’ve read the KJV Bible cover-to-cover…once. I enjoyed it (or portions of it)…once. Don’t know that I’d want to enjoy it cover-to-cover again though. I mostly think of the Bible as a reference book these days anyway, something to look up quotes or verses in as one uses the dictionary to look up words in; and the chilling thought of being water bound on a desert island with only a dictionary to peruse is, well…okay, actually, come to think of it, to a self-described philologist that might not be too bad of a situation, especially if we’re talking about the voluminous OED…on-line. But I digress. I’ve read Shakespeare. I enjoy Shakespeare immensely. However, I would get weary of reading his verse and dialogue repeatedly with nothing else. To wit, there are a great many novels, mythologies, religious texts (or did I enumerate that one already?), histories, textbooks, children’s stories, biographies, fables, philosophical musings, and scientific hypotheses that I’ve both casually and pensively contemplated the words thereof from cover-to-cover…once.
I’ve attempted reading some books twice but find myself asking why I’m doing this and if my time so devoted is truly necessary and if perhaps my precious few spare moments of personal contemplation and soul-searching could be devoted to more worthwhile pursuits such as reading a different book, preferably one I have not yet had the pleasure to crack. I don’t recall ever playing through on the third hole of any hardback or paperback. And as of now I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading thrice or more…come to think of it I can’t think of any volume I could tolerate reading twice or more.
But if one was to directly ask my recommendation for a pleasant piece of fiction or non to gaze thoughtfully at, I may retort with a follow-up such as what one’s general interests tend to be or what genre one is thinking of delving into. I may also be so inclined to respond with whatever I happened to have on my nightstand at the time the question was presented. For instance, I just finished reading (“listened” technically, on my iPod, in audio book format, while driving and jogging and going about life’s limitless activities in full efficiency mode) a P.G. Wodehouse 1917 short-story collection entitled The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories. I found it absolutely delightful. I would gladly suggest it to another if asked (or even without being asked), especially if one was looking for a WWI-era romantic comedy, and who isn’t? But I have little to no desire to read it again. Well, maybe a slight desire; it was rather titillating. Regardless, my personal druthers is to move on to novelties. Reading a book for my first time excites my person. Reading the same printed and bound writings over and over sounds tedious.
Of course as I write this, I’m reminded that when I was a lad of, oh, ten or so, I would walk home from school, fix a grilled-cheese sandwich, then pop our video of Star Wars into the now antiquated VHS player to watch the 1977 space opera from opening to closing credits; and I repeated this monotonous activity near daily for the course of three semesters. I would guesstimate I watched Episode IV: A New Hope that year alone maybe a hundred times, give or take. What can I say? I was young, naïve, and caught up in the culture of my generation, hence I hadn’t yet learned the tedium of redundancy. My interests and desires were different in those days. What’s more, this was a “movie” (some say a six-part documentary expounding upon the secrets of the Jedi), not a “book.” Books typically take a great deal more time and effort.
As content as I am to read books, I take pleasure in other interests beyond books as well. (See previous paragraph.) As such, I think I’ll stick with my first response for now. It’s the variety, the possibility of expanding my mind, the constantly learning new ideas and exploring new frontiers, of growing and progressing, which keeps me satisfied. To be sure, to have the liberty to do this by reading sans constraints, and also by limitless means other than reading, is simply the only way to go, in my humble opinion.