Assembling such a gathering of books around me, marooned in blessed solitude, I’m not sure that I would be in any hurry to be rescued.
Following the recent publication of my article “On the Reading of Good and Bad Books”, several people have requested that I provide a list of good books. This being so, I thought a follow-up article listing a selection of my own favorite books might be appropriate. Here it is:
G. K. Chesterton was once asked what he would most like to have with him if he found himself marooned on a desert island. He replied, somewhat whimsically, that he’d like to have a book on practical shipbuilding. In this, if not in too much else, I’d like to beg to differ with the great man. If I find myself marooned on a desert island, and leaving aside for the sake of the fantasy my anxiety at being separated from my wife and children, I’d like to surround myself with my favorite things and indulge myself in their enjoyment until a ship came (not too soon, I hope) to rescue me.
Losing myself in the fantasy, I set about thinking what I would take with me, making a list of my ten favorite works in various categories. I would take ten Great Books, ten poems, ten novels, ten plays, and ten works of nonfiction.
I began, appropriately enough, with the Great Books, those canonical tomes without which our civilization would be significantly impoverished. I would take the Iliad and the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and last but obviously not least the Holy Bible.
Moving on to the ten poems, I would take Beowulfin Tolkien’s translation, “Decease Release” by St. Robert Southwell, “The Phoenix and the Turtle” by Shakespeare, Coleridge’s “Hymn Before Sun-Rise in the Vale of Chamouni,” “The Wreck of The Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (an appropriate theme for one marooned on a desert island!), “Twelfth Night,” “Tarantella” and “The End of the Road,” all by the indomitable and inimitable Hilaire Belloc, and “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets” by the less indomitable but equally inimitable T. S. Eliot.
Next are the novels. I could not contemplate being without Jane Austen, and would take Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility with me. A life without Dickens would be equally unthinkable, though I would restrict myself, under great self-restraint, to A Christmas Carol, my indubitable favorite. I would have to take Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and would accompany it with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by that other great Russian, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I could not contemplate being without at least one of Chesterton’s novels and, forced to choose, would select The Man Who was Thursday, though I would be sorely tempted to smuggle The Ball and the Cross as an illicit addition to the library, if I thought I could get away with it. I would also take one of the novels by Chesterton’s great friend, Maurice Baring, probably C, though other worthy titles from his scandalously neglected pen would serve equally well. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh could not possibly be left behind, nor could either The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, even though neither of these prose epics by Tolkien could strictly be considered novels. Some rules are clearly meant to be bent, if not broken, and the thought of excluding classic trans-genre titles, such as Tolkien’s, simply because they cannot be neatly pigeonholed, would be patently absurd.
And so to the ten plays. I would take the Three Theban plays by Sophocles, Antigone, Oedipus Rexand Oedipus at Colonus, the only works of drama in the entire canon that come close to the genius of Shakespeare, me judice. And as for Shakespeare himself, one hardly knows where to start, or finish, in selecting which of his plays should accompany me to the desert island. Since I can never make up my mind whether my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays is Hamlet or King Lear, oscillating between one and the other, depending on the day of the week, or the direction the wind is blowing, or the phases of the moon, I would clearly need to bring both with me. I would take two comedies, The Merchant of Veniceand The Merry Wives of Windsor, one dark and problematic, the other light and rambunctious, and would complete my handful of the Bard’s plays with The Tempest, a singularly appropriate choice for a shipwrecked man. This leaves me two other selections, both of which would be plucked from the 20th century: Murder in the Cathedralby T. S. Eliot and A Man for All Seasonsby Robert Bolt.
My final selection of books in this desert island desiderata are the works of nonfiction. This selection would be dominated by that most marvelous of monsters, the Chesterbelloc, without whom I would not have reached the state of mind in which all the other works on this list became accessible or desirable. Without Chesterton and Belloc, I might not be a Christian today and would in consequence be wasting my time and life on the trivia and trash that the Zeitgeist dishes out to it subjects. The Great Books would be unknown to me and I would be wallowing in the shallows of fashion and its twilit shadows. Today, I see by the light of Christ (thanks be to God!) but my eyes were opened to such light, under grace, by Chesterton and Belloc. I would, therefore, be both foolish and ungrateful – and lonely! - were I not to want them with me on my desert island.
I would take two books by Belloc, The Path to Romeand The Four Men, both of which are elegiac in character, waxing with whimsy and waning into wistfulness, and are therefore so poetic in quality that they cannot be considered strictly nonfiction. Since, however, they are not strictly poetry, and are plainly not works of fiction, they will have to be squeezed into the nonfiction section of my desert island library, in much the same way as the works of Tolkien had been squeezed into the fiction section. Perhaps there is a need for a separate trans-genre section to the library but I will stay clear, at this time, of such a controversial suggestion!
I would select six books by Chesterton, none of which I could imagine being without. These are Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, his Autobiographyand In Defense of Sanity, the last of which is a recently published selection of the best of Chesterton’s essays. I would also bring with me to my island a copy of Have You Anything to Declare?, a rarely read gem by Maurice Baring. The concept of this book is not unlike the idea for this article, being a selection of what Baring calls the “literary baggage” he had traveled with during his life and which he would declare as luggage he would like to take with him after death. Since Baring is much better read than I, and since he was a polyglot, conversant in several languages and cognizant of many others, ancient and modern, I feel in his presence what Chesterton felt in the presence of the Dominican, Father Vincent McNabb, that he walks on a crystal floor above my head. This being so, why would I not want such a mentor on my island with me, guiding me through his own literary luggage so that I could benefit from a man so much better dressed in terms of culture than I could ever hope to be?
My final selection would be Blessed John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, a book which impacted me greatly when I first read it, oh so many years ago.
Assembling such a gathering of books around me, marooned in blessed solitude, I’m not sure that I would be in any hurry to be rescued. In fact, were a ship to arrive before I’d had time to read all of these volumes multiple times, I think I’d ask the captain to come back later, in a year or two, bringing with him all those books I’d left behind, which were now weighing on my conscience as sins of omission. How could I have left C. S. Lewis behind? What on earth was I thinking? Or Boethius? Or Bede? Or Chaucer? And what of the many works of Dickens?
As I watched the ship sail off into the sunset, leaving me behind, I’d spend a moment or two wondering how things were in the world of wasted time, the world where needlessly created wants whirl around like a dust storm in a desert. Leaving such idle thoughts behind I’d return to my own little world in which time is well spent and not wasted, a world where time is made for the permanent things and the important things. I would take up the volume I’d been reading when I’d been rudely interrupted and would find myself once again in the presence of giants who had become my friends.