What’s Your Desert Island Book?

This post was inspired by a recent post of a fellow blogger, Beth.

Beth wrote how yesterday (January 18) was National Thesaurus Day and paid homage to Peter Mark Roget, creator of the famous Roget’s Thesaurus. Since I didn’t know about his Thesaruas beyond the basics, I went out to Wikipedia and found the following:

” Sylvia Plath considered it (Roget’s Thesaurus) her desert island book over the Bible.”

I’ve often seen the question “If you were stranded on a desert island, what one book would you want to have?”, but I never knew that such a book was referred to as your desert island book.

So it made me think, what would I choose as my desert island book.

It’s a tough question, since the answer, at least for me, is not necessarily simply choosing my favorite book. If I were to pick a novel such as Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny or Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, I think I would get tired of reading the same story over and over.

So I started thinking of some of my favorite non-fiction books, such as Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, or William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream. But I think I would get bored with those as well.

I also thought of humor books; I’m sure I would be desperate for some laughs while I am stranded. A couple of books that come to mind here are A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. But I think a joke loses its effectiveness after you’ve heard it a few times, so the same might be true for reading humor books .

There are also books that fall into the category of “how to survive on a desert island”. Such a book would seem to come in pretty handy, but I think I would read it cover to cover my first day, and then just occasionally refer to on an as-needed basis. I don’t think it would be the type of book that would give me much joy after that first reading.

So then I started to see the merit in Sylvia Plath’s choice of Roget’s Thesaurus. It seems like it would offer the reader endless possibilities in terms of matching words with each other and the beauty of seeing links between them. It seems like you would never fully finish working through all the links that exist in such a book.

For example, I just looked up one of my favorite words, legerdemain, in the online version of Roget’s Thesaurus, and came across many words I recognized, such as sleight-of-hand, one that surprised me, jugglery (I don’t consider juggling to be in the realm of magic), and one word I never heard of, escamotage. There was also the word conjuration, which I clicked on, and that offered several synonyms, including exorcism. I would have never linked legerdemain with exorcism, but there it is, with just one degree of separation.

I’m sure there are many examples that have much deeper links, with third, fourth, and fifth degrees of separation; it seems like the possibilities of linking words are almost endless.

And that’s just for synonyms; the Thesaurus also has antonyms.

It seems as if it’s the type of book that would provide immediate benefit (e.g., what’s another word for happy to what’s the opposite of despair) as well as a lifelong opportunity of finding connections between words.

And a book that brings endless pleasure and insight seems to be the perfect book to have on a desert island.

I also asked my family what would be their desert island book, and here is what I have heard so far:

Mary, my wife: Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
James, oldest:
Joey, middle:
Pat, youngest: any good non-fiction book

So what about you – what would be your desert island book?

P.S. After writing this, I came across James Patterson’s response to this question, and it may actually be the best answer:

I’d bring an empty book. And a pencil. Honestly, if one was looking to kill time on an island, it takes a bit longer to write one than to read one. And I happen to enjoy the writing as much as the reading. Sometimes even more.

PPS: I also came across a list of the 10 most popular desert island books:

  • ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce
  • ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe
  • ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri
  • The Bible (and other religious texts)
  • ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace
  • ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon
  • ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ by William Shakespeare
  • ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen
  • ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker
  • ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ by J.K. Rowling

*image from Michael Ullyot

31 thoughts on “What’s Your Desert Island Book?

      1. Yeah, you must read the book, Jim. It’s Jane Austen’s masterpiece! It’s brilliant! Watch the Indian version of the story directed by Gurinder Chadda. It’s called Bride and Prejudice . It’s a lovely movie. And the English movie starring Kiera Knightley is brilliant as well!

  1. I agree and I think another benefit would be to read the words out loud, trying out the pronunciation, some words sound wonderful and it would help to retain your ability to speak! You could say I have been wondering all my life what book to take; one of my earliest memories is of Mum and Dad listening to Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio, it started in 1942, long before I was born I hasten to add and still going strong. Modern castaways would probably have some tiny device with millions of hours music stored. But guests still have to choose eight records and one book; but they are also given the complete works of Shakespeare and The Bible. which makes the choice much easier, you already have two very long books to give you plenty to read, so a little light relief is in order. One book that is on your list and the 10 most popular chosen for the radio programme is Pride and Prejudice, so I’m going to go with that.

  2. Interesting post, Jim! I’m a huge re-reader of my favorites, but I agree that it could get boring depending on how long you’re on the island. I think I’ll vote for Patterson’s response, too — I have a pile of unfinished manuscripts here…maybe a desert-island-sabbatical would be just what I needed.

    1. Thanks, Amanda! There are not too many books I would want to read a second time, even if I enjoyed them immensely. There are just so many books I want to read that I feel like rereading would hold me back from getting to those new books. And I like Patterson’s response as well; I would imagine you would be quite a productive writer on a desert island!

    1. thanks, Bob, for taking a look at this from a practical standpoint. I’ll have to take a look at the list of 15 books; they might be fun to read even if I never end up stranded on a desert island. Maybe self-actualization could be part of the reason for trying to survive, even if there is no hope of being rescued.

  3. I agree with Bob. A great survival book would be my choice. Yes, I know this will not be long term entertainment in any way, but I promise you, being dry, hydrated, warm, and well fed can be very fulfilling in a survival scenario. Assuming the island and waters around it are not devoid of animal life, I am sure I can find other entertainment. Interesting question posed here, and well-thought explanations of preference and reasoning. Very thought provoking!

  4. Thought provoking post, Jim. I have to agree that a survival guide applicable to the particular environment would be the most prudent. The first order of business would be moving as far as possible up old man Maslow’s triangle. If the setting were changed to solitary confinement (Naturally, I was wrongly convicted. My attorneys are working round the clock – but that’s a story for another time), I’d go with Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry for fiction or Fearless by Eric Blehm for non-fiction. Both books emphasize love, loyalty, courage and determination, all of which would be useful on a desert island or concrete cell. Thanks for the post Jim!

    1. Hi Patrick – it’s good to hear from you! Yes, a survival guide would be the most practical book to have. Maybe I should start reading a few now, just in case. I’ve never read the two books you mention, but I will check them out – I liked another book you recommended a while ago. And I am sure you are an innocent man – good luck with your appeal 🙂 I hope I’ll be reading a post or two from you soon!

  5. I like James Patterson’s response. Assuming that one would be alone for a long time and had adequate food and water, I think the hardest part of that scenario would be keeping your mind stimulated. Most of us have a desire to interact with others, so that would be challenging to say the least.

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