My Desert Island Bookshelf

Given how much I read, I am occasionally asked what my favorite book is. My answer is the same as when my kids ask me what my favorite food is: it depends. With books, especially, I’m no longer certain I can say I have a favorite. I don’t rate books because I don’t find much objective value in rating systems. Instead, I simply indicate if the book is one that I would recommend and/or read again.

Friends, however, rarely let me get away with this answer. They want something definitive. Again, it varies based on all kinds of factors. For instance, my favorite baseball book is currently Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100, which recently unseated W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe on my personal best-baseball book list. My current favorite fiction series is Craig Johnson’s Longmire books.

My clever friends try another tact: what if you were stranded on a desert island? What book would you want with you then?

Put that way, I have an answer. Indeed, I have a bookshelf just in case such a situation arises. Of all of the books sitting on the shelves in my office, there is a single shelf that I consider to be my desert island bookshelf. The shelf contains the 11-volume Story of Civilization series by Will and Ariel Durant, as well as four other books by the Durants, including their Dual Autobiography. If pressed, this would be my desert island bookshelf.

Why The Story of Civilization, the first of which was published in 1935 and the final volume in 1975? Certainly some of the material is outdated, and new discoveries have supplanted what is in these books. Even so, these eleven volumes provide a history of human civilization that is epic in scope and meticulous in detail. And best of all: I simply love Durant’s writing style. His style can make any subject seem interesting. Then, too, I feel for the Durant’s as I read each volume. You can see from the introductions to each book how the project grew far beyond their original expectations, but they kept going.

The books highlight the key figures of history, so I’d never been lonely for company. But the books also provide a picture of what life was like for the average person, too. The story of civilization is also the story of war and art and literature and science, and thus, I have all of these fascinating subjects as company. At more than 10,000 pages, it would take a while to get through the entire series, so that when I started over again at the beginning, the early parts would seem fresh and at the same time, I’d have additional context from the later volumes. It seems to be I could never be bored with these books on my island.

As it happens, I’ve considered the question of desert island books before. Way back in 2007, I mentioned Will Durant as an author whose books I’d want with me if I was stuck on a desert island for 20 years. In 2014, I considered this question again, and again come up with Will Durant’s Story of Civilization as my desert island books. And in 2017, I once again considered this question, and once again gave as my answer, the Durant’s Story of Civilization as the books I’d want with me on a desert island.

I am nothing if not consistent.

Now if I could only figure out how to take this bookshelf with me when traveling by plane over water, or by sea, so that I have it with me in the unlikely even that I am stranded on a desert island.

Written on March 5, 2022.

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9 comments

      1. Melanie, I agree, but in principle this was more about what books rather than the format that they were in. Actually, if the books could be magically protected against the elements, I’d prefer the paper editions to the Kindle editions in this case. There is something delightful about the page of the book gently blowing in the tropical breezes of my well-stocked desert island. 🙂

        1. Totally agree with you. I’m still not 100% on board with the Kindle experience. Plus, a well-loved booked becomes almost an object in and of itself. There are few books I will take with me no matter how long I live or how many times I move, and I would be devasted if I lost that particular copy, even though for most of them I could go to a Barnes and Noble (not to mention Amazon!) right now and replace them.

          And I think Outlander would be my desert island book. A nice long yarn to keep me company again and again.

      1. Michael, as I said in my reply to Melanie, I agree that Kindle would make it easy to carry these books around. But my point was more about which books I’d want with me and less about the format. And regarding the link to the series: of course, I already own them in e-book format. In fact, I own the entire Story of Civilization in paper, ebook and audiobook formats. I like it that much!

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