One of the great pleasures of getting older is rereading: you care less about the books you haven’t read yet (and maybe never will) and more about the ones you know you love. In that category for me are the stories of Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro, and the poetry of Philip Levine and Wislawa Szymborska. I keep one collection or another of each of these writers always at hand, and would toss something by each into the suitcase, were I packing for a desert island. In that category too are several picture books:
Wanda Gag’s “The Funny Thing,” with its beautiful wood-cuts of Bobo, the little man of the mountains, and his greedy guest, the Funny Thing.
Leo Lionni’s “Frederick,” the story of a mouse poet whose stories carry his family through the long winter.
Lionni’s wonderful “Cornelius,” about a baby crocodile who just happens to walk upright, to the chagrin of his fellows. No one writes as reassuringly as Lionni about the differences that make each of us unique, or as honestly about how those differences don’t always win friends. All alone, on that island, I might like to be reminded of both the up and downside of other people.
Almost anything by Maurice Sendak would be worth dipping into, but in the interests of packing light and varying my reading, I’d bring along two books illustrated by Sendak: “The Juniper Tree, and other Tales,” a collection of Grimm folktales beautifully translated by Lore Segal; and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s moving collection of stories, “Zlateh the Goat,” about the mythical shtetl of Chelm.
The Singer stories are fables of a sort, and so are the works in Borges’s “Dream Tigers,” Augusto Monterroso’s “The Black Sheep,” and Italo Calvino’s “Cosmicomics.” All would come along with me, for who can live without fables? And because I reread them every year, with new insight and always with pleasure, I would include: Vivian Paley’s “Wally’s Stories: Conversations in the Kindergarten,” a welcome reminder these days that children don’t start out edgy and competitive, but are made that way; Ronald Sanders’s “Lost Tribes and Promised Land,” which says in its subtitle that it’s about “the origins of American racism,” although I always think of it as a history of the Spanish conversos; Lewis Hyde’s “Trickster Makes This World,” about the disruptive power of art; and Italo Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millenium,” the best primer on writing fiction ever written.