Desert Island Reading List

Susan Hill’s memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing culminates in a list of books she would take to a desert island. Her choices say as much about Hill’s life as her bookshelves — which are really one and the same, as for most lifelong readers.

Today in class we tried a similar exercise, to ‘crystallize’ (Hill’s word) a lifetime of experience into a single shelf of books you have read, and would happily spend the rest of your life reading.

These aren’t the books you wish you had read, or would pack in your suitcase in the earnest hope that long hours of isolation would force you to read them. (For me, that includes Moby Dick and Bleak House and Anatomy of Melancholy and …)

No, these are the books that you have read, and would happily re-read again and again for the rest of your days. Say you’re leaving for a ten-year one-way spaceflight, alone, and will die at the end. These books are for you alone: no one else will ever know which books went with you.

The Rules, then:

Ten books (more manageable than 40). No anthologies. No collected works. One book per author.

What’s on your list? Here’s mine, in no particular order:

  1. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
  2. A S Byatt, Possession
  3. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost
  5. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  6. Ovid, The Metamorphoses (trans. Mandelbaum)
  7. Nick Bantock, Griffin and Sabine
  8. Virginia Woolf, The Waves
  9. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
  10. William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Each one has autobiographical resonances and is linked to a dozen other books, as Susan Hill’s are.

This list also required whittling down. Here are the ten I had to leave behind:

  1. Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
  2. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism
  3. C S Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
  4. Plato, The Republic
  5. Christopher Logue, War Music
  6. Carl Sagan, Cosmos
  7. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
  8. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
  9. John Lydgate, The Troy Book
  10. Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me

That last one has a particularly long story; don’t ask.

About ullyot

Assistant Professor of English and Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning), Faculty of Arts; University of Calgary; early modernist + digital humanist.
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