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Desert Island Experiment

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On one of the long car trips that were so big a part of our Christmas season, Kate and I passed the time by talking about books. Shocking, I know, but true. Kate brought up the idea of “Desert Island Books.”

This is, of course, a concept with a number of problems (after all, if you’re going to be stranded on a literal desert island, the key books to have are How to Survive on a Desert Island and How to Build a Boat with Things You Can Find on a Desert Island. Fiction is superfluous…). A better phrasing of the question is “pick ten books that you’d be willing to have as the only books you can read for the rest of your life.” Of course, this is still a lousy way of getting at the real intent of the question, namely “list your ten very favorite books in all of the world.” As part of the pleasure of reading fiction is the novelty of discovering new places and characters, it’s not clear that a real “desert island” list should be the same as your list of favorite books. You’d probably want one or two “comfort reads,” but you’d also want to take along a fairly wide range of stuff, including a few things you had never read before.

Anyway, as we kicked this around for a while, I realized that I’ve actually done this experiment, at least in a limited version. It wasn’t a desert island, granted (Japan is fairly thickly settled), and it was only for a few months, but I have, in fact, packed books for a trip to an island where I wasn’t certain to be able to find any other reading material.

Having an obsessive-compulsive streak, I actually kept a list of the books I read while I was there. It’s not exactly a true “desert island” list, as I did buy a fair number of books there (especially once I was shown how to find Good Day Books), but I can more or less reconstruct what I bought for the trip. In the end, I didn’t take any comfort reads, though I did take several books by reliable authors, but the range of stuff I did take is probably illustrative of something.

Here’s the list, as best I can recall, in approximately the order in which I read them:

  • Tomcat in Love by Tim O’Brien. A very strange book about a lecherous academic. Unsurprisingly, it collides with a Vietnam novel halfway through.
  • 253 by Geoff Ryman. A collection of 253 character sketches, each containing 253 words, of the 253 passengers on a London subway that crashes. It makes more sense as a Web novel, and would’ve been a surreal reading experience even if I hadn’t been reading it in the middle of a 12-hour flight to Tokyo.
  • Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I had just discovered Bryson at that point, and this is one of his better books. In this one, he travels around England, seeing the sights, before moving back to America.

  • The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft. I had never read Lovecraft before, and figured I ought to in order to understand:
  • Resume With Monsters by William Browning Spencer. Dilbert meets Lovecraft. Both funnier and creepier than the original stories.
  • Blackburn by Bradley Denton. Best. Serial. Killer. Novel. Ever.
  • Eat the Rich by P. J. O’Rourke. Had I realized that I had read most of these pieces as columns in Rolling Stone, I would’ve brought something else instead.
  • Future Indefinite by Dave Duncan. The conclusion to the Great Game series, and the best novel he’s written. Much better than his usual popcorn fantasy.
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Deserves its good reputation. Eco consistently manages to make me feel semi-literate.
  • Ribofunk by Paul DiFillipo. A collection of biology-based hard SF, published in a special $3.99 edition. Worth about what I paid for it.
  • Desolation Road by Ian McDonald. Kate recommended it as “a magic realist Martian Chronicles,” which isn’t far off, even if it is redundant.
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Evolutionary psychology’s most eloquent advocate holds forth on linguistics.
  • Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen. Good popcorn reading from South Florida’s best crime novelist.
  • The Famished Road by Ben Okri. Nigerian magic realism, that kind of spins out of control at the end.
  • What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. I’m not positive that I brought this with me– I may have bought it there. Second in the Cornish trilogy, and a very good read.
  • City of Diamond by Jane Emerson. Again, may have been purchased in Tokyo. Generation-ship space opera.
  • Crown of Shadows by C. S. Friedman. Ditto regarding its origin. Conclusion fo the Coldfire trilogy, and not quite as good as the previous volumes.
  • A Song of Stone by Iain Banks. A deeply unpleasant book, which may explain why it’s not listed in ym journal from Japan, but I vividly remember reading it there.
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo. The opening scene at the baseball game just blew me away. The rest of the book isn’t quite as good, but there are some absolutely wonderful bits.

Readers of my book log will note that this is skewed a bit more toward weighty books than my normal reading tastes. Non-readers of my book log will either take it on faith, or check out the title index for confirmation.

It’s also interesting to note that, while I hadn’t read any of these books before the trip, I had a pretty good success rate. Of the 19 books listed above, only one was really actively unpleasant (and that wasn’t because it was badly written), and three (Lovecraft, O’Rourke, and DiFillipo) were “duds.” Several of them, I’d be happy to read again.

Were I actually forced to make up a “desert island” list, I suspect I’d do something fairly similar to what I did in picking this list: choose a mix of new books by known authors, and highly recommended books by authors unknown to me. I’d also throw in a few more “comfort reads” than I list above, though, because sometimes you just have to have old favorites and popcorn books (I did read a good deal of fluff while I was there, but it didn’t come on the plane with me).

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About Chad Orzel

  • Sarah e.g.

    Good heavens, Lovecraft a dud? Granted, half of his stories are awful, but the other half are divine.
    “Resume With Monsters” reminds me of a book I am dying to get–viz. “Scream for Jeeves” by Peter Cannon, in which Bertie Wooster meets Cthulhu. Others have been fascinated with the subject as well; here’s a lovely bit by Dave Langford:

    `In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.’
    `So I have been informed, sir.’
    `Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I’m going into the Park to do nameless, blasphemous rites descended from a shuddering and unhallowed tradition, amid shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky … forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnameable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils … insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and demon arcades choked with fungous vegetation … and then a snifter at the Drones, what?’
    `I fancy not, sir. The Dark Priestess of the Esoteric Order of Dagon is in the sitting-room and desires to speak to you.’
    `Iä! Iä! Aunt Agatha!’


    Anyway, a good, thick Wodehouse anthology would definitely be one of my desert island books.

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  • anon.

    I agree about Crown of Shadows. If I wasn’t addicted to the series I might have given up on it- but as the fan I am the very idea should be unthinkable!
    My sister worships Lovecraft, but I can’t get into his writing. Maybe I just don’t like gore.