Sunday, July 11, 2004


Books for a Desert Island

One of my favorite modern essayists, Kihm Winship, compiled a list entitled If I Could Only Take One Library to a Desert Island..., which contains the charming admission "Kihm Winship, because I would be lying if I told you I did not love the sound of my own voice." I always like to hear about such lists, in the same way that I enjoy looking at the contents of bookshelves when I visit someone's home.

The June 6, 1962 issue of The Christian Century magazine contains C.S. Lewis' answer to the question, "What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?" Here is Lewis' list:
  1. Phantastes by George MacDonald
  2. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Aeneid by Virgil
  4. The Temple by George Herbert
  5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth
  6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
  7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
  9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams
  10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour
Probably the Bible was too close to Lewis' heart even to need mention.

In the essay on Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment in his Essays in Criticism, Matthew Arnold makes a surprising choice:
People talk of this or that work which they would choose, if they were to pass their life with only one; for my part I think I would choose the Abbé Migne's collection.
He is referring to Patrologiae Cursus Completus, the voluminous works of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers edited by Migne.

Among the favorite books of former President William Clinton is Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. A chivalrous gesture, but an insincere one, I suspect.

One question that exercises me: Should you take to the desert island books you've already read, or those you've never read? When I go on vacation, I sometimes bring a book I've never been able to get through, so that lack of anything else will force me to read what I couldn't before.

My short list of books for a desert island would probably contain:
  1. Bible (King James version)
  2. Homer
  3. Horace
  4. Rabelais
  5. Montaigne
  6. Shakespeare
  7. Boswell's Life of Johnson
  8. Schopenhauer
  9. Thoreau
  10. Dickens
But it would pain me to part with almost any book in my collection. I sometimes consider winnowing my bookshelves, but I find little chaff among the wheat.

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