Assuming that every well-prepared desert island comes stocked with the Bible and Shakespeare (huge cliches, yes, but still bottomlessly resourceful), and since my professional job is to read plays, almost every day, I’ll skip that bunch. Instead, perhaps I’ll finally have the chance to finish “War and Peace” and “Moby Dick,” not to mention Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose” and Douglas Hofstadter’s cult favorite “Godel, Escher, Bach” (which I dropped in favor of the much more readable “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”).
But there was probably good reason for not finishing at least two of those mammoths in the first place. So how about Bertrand Russell’s handy little “Problems of Philosophy” for the enforced meditation I can look forward to? It may have regrouped my way of thinking as an undergraduate, but if I haven’t fully grasped those problems by now, it’s probably too late.
So how about the great fiction, which hit with such force way back then — and later? There’s Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” (about taking stock of the self and the individual’s place in the world); Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” (such gorgeous prose, and imaginative vistas undreamt of); Kazantzakis’s “Christ Recrucified” (the tale bears re-telling); Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” (a country still crying, and to be cried for); and just about any short stories from Chekhov, or D.H Lawrence, or R.K. Narayan, or William Trevor or the Canadian Alistair MacLeod.
Or the model biographies? There is Roy Jenkins on Asquith, the Liberal British Prime Minister, and Michael Holroyd’s “Bernard Shaw” (an invisible blend of biography and criticism). In a less literary strain there’s A.B. Facey’s autobiography “A Fortunate Life,” about an illiterate boy’s survival in the Western Australian desert, and his learning enough letters to write about it.
But now it dawns on me that the better the book, the more slowly I read it, sometimes over weeks or even months. Going back to it, I find that what matters about the book is still inside me. Heresy it may be: I almost never read a book twice unless to teach it.
Except, of course — and here we come to it — a book of poems. A good poem digests (in both senses) what is humanly most worth observing and preserving, yet in ways that change our perceptions of it. Good poetry never tires of revealing itself. Reading it is like an act of devotion.
So first for my holdall must be (yawn?) a collection of Milton, not for the man or his ideas so much as for couplets like, “Sport that wrinkled Care derides, / And Laughter holding both his sides” (from “L’Allegro”) — which are surely matched only by Romeo’s “Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops.” Then William Butler Yeats, maybe the last Romantic (as he called himself) but still inescapably modern. “So great a sweetness flows into the breast / We must laugh and we must sing, / We are blest by everything, / Everything we look upon is blest.”
Then I’d need an anthology like Helen Waddell’s “Lyrics from the Chinese” — not because they open Western eyes to the “other,” but quite the opposite, to the universally human. (Political remonstrances against “essentialism” seem rather quaint now against the reach of groups like Amnesty International, the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.)
Yawn again? Virgil’s “Aeneid”: In Latin, with a glossary close by! I still see and hear my high school principal intoning those miraculous hexameters, while a small huddle of us ground away at the meaning. The satisfaction of getting it, of responding to the poet’s immaculate syntactic shapes, the vividness of his imagery and the poignancy of his narrative — all this, alongside the shorter and simpler lyrics of Wordsworth, made me a daily reader of poems for life. May I bring more? Muldoon? Szymborska? Kooser?
No, they can wait ’till I’m rescued. Instead, a piece of fiction after all, one of those 19th-century works of supreme leisure. (There’ll be plenty of time for it.) Balzac? Tempting. George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”? A touch severe. Her “Daniel Deronda”? Not quite. No, I choose quite simply the perfect novel, Dickens’s “Great Expectations.”
You demur? Well, I admit it: Pip was brought up near where I was born and spent my earliest years. In that tropical wilderness ahead of me, there’ll be no escaping nostalgia.
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