As promised last week, here are the ten books I would take with me to a deserted island. These books have given me great joy and an understanding of human nature. They continually inspire and help me laugh at my own foibles and, I think, help me to be more compassionate to myself and others. So here goes my list with a short reason why they are my best literary friends. I would love to hear your list, however short or long.
1. Roget’s International Thesaurus. Not the small one, mind you, but the big three inch thick hard cover tome that has become one of my most absolute treasures. If I am going to be on an island for an indeterminate amount of time with no distractions except for my meandering mind and other people’s words, I will have to write. And, if I write, I need this thesaurus.
2. An excellent dictionary. I have a fair to middling dictionary—the Concise Oxford— but one day I will splurge and buy a not so concise one. The only problem with this plan is that my current dictionary, due to weight and size, is fairly mobile from my computer to reading chair. Anything heavier and I will just pretending to know the big words. But, if I am going to read and write, I need this book.
The rest are not in chronological order…
3. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Although separated into maybe 500 or so poems, this is a grand tale that reads like Shevardnadze’s The Thousand and One Nights. It takes us in “chronological” order from the Creation to the deification of Caesar, includes many of the Graeco-Roman myths, and is filled with humour, tragedy, melodrama and poignant love scenes. It is truly a must read if you are a fan of mythology and a student of human nature. One of my favorites for beautiful passages and incredible pathos is Phaeton. It is the story of the Sun God’s illegitimate son: the latter’s need to prove himself to both his friends and his father; and the father’s need, but inability, to protect his beloved son from his own follies.
4. Milton’s Paradise Lost. A great story. Milton was not only a genius but provocative, imaginative and quite witty. Take the part where Satan (nee Lucifer) meets his ex-lover, Sin, at the gates of hell and doesn’t recognize her. She cries out: “Hast thou forgot me then, and do I seem now in thine eye so foul, once deemed so fair…” What spurned lover does not know that feeling and isn’t the gates of Hell a suitable place for such a discussion? Then there are the arguments that Adam and Eve employ when they realize the trouble they are in after eating the apple. They are really not so different from ones you would expect around the kitchen table concerning finances or undone chores. And, I must say, I did enjoy reading how it was Eve who finally showed the most integrity while Adam maintained his whining and finger pointing. Plus this is the only tale I know that implies Lucifer’s rebellion and ultimate fall from heaven was the consequences of feeling rejected at “home”. The way Milton writes it I have no doubt that God could have reorganized Heaven a little bit more … diplomatically. I mean, one day all the angels are equal in status and the next they are being told to bow down to God’s one and only son… an angel who used to be your equal. Talk about favorites! Finally, I just respect Mr. Milton for his perseverance and creative vitality. He was blind when he created this poem. Each night he would be visited by his “muse” and in the morning would dictate his verses to a scribe. Incredible.
5. The Illiad of Homer. Once again, humour, tragedy and our eternal and, at times, cursed, personality issues make this book as current now as it was over 2000 years ago. While Homer brings to life all the petty jealousies, excessive pride, cowardly behaviour and outrageous impulses that colour our melodramatic lives he does so with such compassion. Favorite scenes: the manipulations Hera uses to outwit Zeus in order to save her beloved Greeks, and the near death fight of Achilles against the river god, Scamander.
6. Faust: Part One and Two, by Goethe. Okay, I am going to start getting the reputation of a devil worshipper but I have to admit, I loved Goethe’s Mephistopheles. He is funny, even catty, world weary but ever up for a challenge and, I think, while a times an absolute gentleman, would be a most excellent drinking buddy. He negotiates with God to be given someone interesting to seduce. Most men, he says, are too easy and “boring to torment”. Mephistopheles suggests Faust who “hankers after heaven’s loveliest orbs” and God agrees. If Faust cannot find his way back to righteousness at his final hour, the devil can have him. So, the two part play is about Faust’s long fall to hell through murder, thievery, fraud and whatnot. By the end, I could not abide by Faust. On the other hand, I felt utterly frustrated and not a little sorry for Mephistopheles. To have worked so hard with a pupil so eager … only to be defeated at grave side by rose throwing angels. Alas. Note: I highly recommend having a who’s who to classic mythology nearby for part two.
7. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. Anything really by this Russian author would be worth bringing. His depth of understanding and compassion for the human heart, his passionate prose, and knowledge of what drives human behaviour is beyond compare. Okay, I say that too glibly, he has fierce competition with the seven other writers listed here.
8. Melvilles’ Moby Dick. Okay, there are some absolutely boring passages in this book but they are far outweighed by the magical descriptions of whales. It’s the only book here that I haven’t read at least twice but I know at some point I will. If anything would make you a Green Peace torch bearer, this book will do it.
9. Jorges Luis Borges Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. While I haven’t read all the stories or essays within this book there are some to which I keep coming back. The funny thing is that regardless of my repetitive readings I am still as mystified and awed as I was when I first read them. His magical surrealism is so real that I find myself lost in the weave of his words without a recognizable reference to find my way out again. My favorite is The Immortal but a close second is The House of Asterion.
10. Levi Primo’s Survival in Auschwitz. I have written before on this book. So, all I will say is the reason I would take it with me to the island is because it gives me hope and trust in the human spirit.