Over drinks with a friend the other day the conversation turned to the following question: stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life what books would you want to have with you?
Now being stranded on a deserted island might mean you'd be a little preoccupied with others things like fighting off the animals or hunting for food but you'd surely find time for some good literature!
1. The Bible
This one is a no-brainer. Most of Western literature, in some form or fashion, is traced to these texts which never fail to startle and inspire in every sense of the word. A must have.
2. The Tempest and/or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
The Tempest is widely accepted as Shakespeare's last and--in the views of some--best and most atypical play. An elegy that is something of an homage to all that came before it from the Bard:
Full fathom five thy father lies;Of his bones are coral made;Those are pearls that were his eyes:Nothing of him that doth fadeBut doth suffer a sea-changeInto something rich and strange.
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
I come back to this for its opening sentences: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit that Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” In other words, the protagonist is in a battle between forging his own destiny and fate: between naming himself and being named. A few lines later we learn that the “father” of the first sentence is dead and just as his name has been cut short—both advertently by others and inadvertently by himself—so much of Pip’s life has also been cut short of prospect, of opportunity, of expectation. This is a miraculous opening for a miraculous book. While Great Expectations is heavy-handed, perhaps, in some of its symbolism, its miracle remains the fact that every single line Dickens wrote in it is pregnant with possibility. Whenever I go back I always see more.
4. A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul.
One aspect of Naipaul's 1961 novel that not many people comment on is how its language and tone open up the narrative to deep and profound medications on life. We hear and read a lot about the novel's comic aspects, about its post-colonial themes, about its politics and its relation to Naipaul's other works. But what the book's narrator actually says is often overlooked (in favor of looking at the action and the comments of the characters). Consider one of the novel's best didactic passages that comes at the end of its great prologue:
But bigger than them all was the house, his house.
How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one's portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.
The language is elegant: precise but not verbose, well-structured yet still rhythmic. The book is hypnotic, heart-breaking and, ultimately, has the impact of a prayer. Interestingly, with a new book out and new editions of older books also out, Naipaul is in the news for some controversial remarks he's made (yet again).
5. Candide by Voltaire.
Such fine satire will be most welcomed. Optimism might also be useful in the circumstances, too.
6. The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Useful for battling all the wild predators on the isle.
7. Undraining Sea by Vahni Capideo.
Also useful for battling wild predators but perhaps for other reasons. If you are going to be facing the sea every morning then why not in the company of Capildeo's book?
The poetry of this volume joins the sea of words: it both makes and breaks the ocean up. The work is deeply mysterious (as in the poem 'From First to Last...') but also concerned with complex everyday experience. The form of the poems are themselves a medium of the poet's expression: her choice of structures and of mechanisms to express the iridescence of ideas mirror the language and images within her gift. This is a work of synesthesia.
Check out more about the book here and consider this section from 'Disappearing People':
As egrets fly over
reclaimed land in a whiteness
more plangent than the mangrove salt
crusting their wings,
just so was the gate
less wrought than what lay there,
arms fronting the ceiling.
But she shouted to it,
I am missing a layer.
You know how it has gone.
Where is the skin that pasted my bones?
My breastbone is pulsing
with my breath palpitating.
By my life! Give me cover!
What amends for no surface?
I keep down to a walking pace.
Still it goes surging, spilling out, life:
I need to close it,
what you took without moving.
8. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
One of the greatest novels ever written. The key success of the work is how Morrison gives voice to the voiceless, how she reverses an abhorrent erasure with a rage and fractious beauty.
9. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.
You have to have an excellent thriller. This was the thriller that changed all thrillers and is still a good read.
10. Misery by Stephen King.
Might help to lighten the mood!