Books For A Desert Island

My post on favorites yesterday put me in mind of my favorite books, and how they have changed over the years. That in turn led to wonder what books I absolutely must have for a reading emergency. And that led me to reconsider my answer to the question, “What books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?”

Let’s set aside the utter preposterousness of the premise for now. Let’s now worry about how I got onto the island, or why I had a bunch of books with me in the first place. Let’s not sweat over what I’d do for food or water, how I’d protect myself from the sun and the weather. Let’s instead consider the books that I’d want to have with me on that island, and why I’d want them.

It would make sense for me to bring along my favorite books. My current favorite is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. But when I consider the loneliness of a desert island (to say nothing of the opportunity it presents for uninterrupted reading), the book doesn’t call to me.

For a long time now, I’ve thought that if I were stranded on a desert island, the books I’d most want with me are Will and Arial Durant’s Story of Civilization series. This series of books began in the early 1930s as Will Durant’s magnum opus to chart civilization through he ages. When he started writing, the thought he might have five books in the series. He ended up with 11 volumes, spanning forty years, and winning one Pulitzer prize Volume 10, Rousseau and Revolution in 1968. The books total more than 10,000 pages, and reach into all parts of civilization through the age of Napoleon. These are the books I’d want with me if I ever happen to be stranded on a desert island. There are several reasons.

  1. It would take a long time to read them through.
  2. Durant has a delightful style to his writing, one that is witty and engaging.
  3. The books are packs so densely with information that even upon re-reading them, I’d learn new things.
  4. The books are also packed with the famous, infamous, and lesser known people of history. I’d live a thousand lives reading the books.
  5. The Durants traveled the world over while doing research for the books, and the books read like a travelogue in places. Despite being marooned on my narrow strip of an island with a single palm tree for shade, I could roam the world with the books.
  6. I’ve always felt that reading them all at once, cover-to-cover, would give a sense of the sweep of human history rarely achievable in the hustle and bustle of our modern world.
  7. I’d make all kinds of wise and intelligent observations in the margins—observations that might be lost to all time if I was never found, and the books crumbled to dust.

I’m not superstitious, but I never travel with a complete set of The Story of Civilization. I wouldn’t want to tempt fate.


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