Desert Island Reading List

My English 503 students and I are reading Susan Hill’s memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing, which 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.

It got me planning a similar exercise with my students, 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. Carl Sagan, Cosmos
  5. John Lydgate, The Troy Book
  6. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
  7. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
  8. Plato, The Republic
  9. Christopher Logue, War Music
  10. Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me

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

One Response to “Desert Island Reading List”

  1. Brigitte Clarke

    Since you asked, my desert island reading list includes:

    One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    The Bone People – Keri Hulme
    Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
    Life of Pi – Yann Martel
    Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
    The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
    The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
    The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
    Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
    Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

    Had the list included collected works and anthologies, I would’ve named Tolkien, J.K.Rowling, Douglas Adams, Neruda, Dylan Thomas, William Blake. e.e. cummings and Christina Rosetti.


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