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).