Thursday, May 21, 2020

'Mental Food for a Highly Problematical Future'

A reader questions my taste in desert-island books, suggesting I pack titles of more recent, “relevant” vintage. Sorry, but what I look for in a book intended for sustenance is familiarity coupled with inexhaustibility – thus, Boswell, Shakespeare, King James. Few recent books pack sufficient protein and energy-sustaining fats.

The parlour game of choosing desert-island anything is older than I realized. Sir John Collings Squire (1884-1958), a forgotten English book critic and expert on Stilton cheese, wrote “The Most Durable Books” (Books in General, 1919) during the Great War:

“The question of what books one would take with one for a prolonged sojourn on a desert island is an old one. I thought it had lost its interest for me, as too remote. For I do not propose to live on a desert island, and if ever, by accident, I am cast upon the shore of one, clinging to a solitary plank, it is unlikely that I shall have spent the last hour on shipboard selecting mental food for a highly problematical future as a hermit.”

Squire tells us a “distressed man in the trenches” has complained to him that too rapidly consumes the books he is sent by friends at home. They’ll never be “permanent companions.” The soldier gives him the “ancient poser”: “`What three’ (it is always three)” books would he recommend? “He adds, with some unnecessary bluntness, that he will not believe me if I say one of them will be the Bible.”

Squire eliminates the cute ideas – encyclopedias and the OED. After defining what he means by a “book,” he specifies titles which he is “sufficiently familiar with to be certain that they will not grow stale at the fifty-fifth reading.” He suggests Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, with qualifications, and that would surely be in contention if the list could exceed three volumes. He weighs Shakespeare, Boswell, Rabelais and Le Morte d’Arthur.

Other readers, he acknowledges, would suggest Cervantes or Montaigne, and he knows a man who would choose Tristram Shandy. “But Sterne is too short; one would get to know him by heart in a month or two,” Squire says, though I would keep him in contention, perhaps in an omnibus volume including A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. After considering an illustrated edition of Robinson Crusoe, “which would provide one with useful models when one was cutting out one’s garments,” Squire contemplates another approach to the question. After considering three novels by Zola and several other modern candidates (including D.H. Lawrence), he concludes:

“For these would do a great deal to reconcile one to one’s lonely lot. Whenever one was regretting the world of men one would find an everflowing spring of consolation in them. ‘After all,’ one would say after each agued page, ‘there is a good deal to be said about a desert island.’”

Not that King Lear is a gushing fountain of life-affirmation (except in the language).

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

Sometimes desert-island books is not a game. Eric Hoffer, in his slender biography, Truth Imagined, tells of his time as a placer miner:

"My self-education progressed most markedly when I was placer mining. I had time to study, think, and even learn to write. One year, as I was to go up to the mountains, I had a hunch that I would be snowbound and I had to provide myself with enough reading material to keep me going during the workless days. I decided to buy a thick book of a about a thousand pages. It mattered not what the book was about so long as it was thick and had small print and no pictures. I found such a book in a secondhand bookstore and bought it for one dollar. It was only after I bought it that I turned to the title page. It said that these were the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I knew what essays were but nothing of Montaigne."

I had a similar experience when I was about to head out on a U.S. Naval destroyer for nine months at sea. The storage space for enlisted men left no room for anything but a change of clothes and a few small personal items. I headed to a used book shop and found a compact edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I had never read. We were sent to Vietnam during the last year of the war. My first reading of this novel was often accompanied by the boom and shudder of our ship's guns firing at North Vietnamese positions."