In what may be the most famous book review in the English language, Dr. Johnson paused to remind us that: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” That it’s also the best and most famous negative review is hardly coincidental. But Johnson left out another essential “end of writing,” the next step beyond mere endurance. Call it survival, the ultimate utilitarian purpose for which a book might be used. In “Ten Desert Island Books” (The Mersey Goldfish, Bloodaxe, 1995), the Irish poet Ian Duhig makes these reading suggestions for castaways:
“The Joy of Sex on Your Own
“St Brendan the Voyager: His Shipwright’s Manual
“Uses and Abuses of the Banana
“So You Think You Know About Sand?
“Appelation Contrôlée Palm Wine; How to Make It, Market It and Get Rich While Marooned
“Psychotropic Flora of the Pacific
“Nuclear War: A Good Scoff at `The Developed World’
“O’Neill’s 1001 Tunes Adapted for the Conch
“The Wisdom of Turtles”
Strictly speaking, not a poem, but a good deflation of high-minded readerly intent. When called on to name their “Desert Island Books,” celebrities, whether musicians or writers, almost invariably drag out Melville and Tolstoy, accompanied by more contemporary junk (Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Joseph Heller, et. al). See the lists of Michael Stipe, Laurie Anderson and Maggie Nelson. Serious reading approaches extinction, but survives, like other endangered species, in isolated pockets. Yet books continue to carry cultural cachet, snob appeal. Duhig knows a good writer when he sees one, judging by his allusions in The Mersey Goldfish to Laurence Sterne, Hubert Butler and Myles na gCopaleen.