Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sunday Salon: Desert Island Books

As a kid, one of my favourite radio programmes was Desert Island Discs, a BBC Radio 4 production that has been running since 1942. The basic format is that a well-known guest is invited onto the show and asked to imagine that they will be stranded for an indefinite period on a desert island with 8 pieces of music, one book of their choice, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Bible or other relevant religious/philosophical work and one luxury item which must be inanimate and of no use to escaping from the island. In between explaining their music choices, the guests talk about their lives and since this programme is basically an institution, they've had just about everyone you can think of on there. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that I could subscribe to the podcasts of current episodes AND access the archives all the way back to 1998.

Which got me thinking - how about the literary version? What if instead of music you had to choose books to take with you?

Book choice one: Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

This hardback book is a compilation of the first three Malory Towers books, one that I read many a time during my childhood. There was something magical to me about the escapism of boarding school stories. I loved being at school (the nerdiness started young) and thought that eating meals, being at school after the sun went down and then sleeping there with all of my friends would be fabulous. Now I'm a bit older and wiser I can see that boarding school would likely not have been all it was cracked up to be in my head but if I'm going to be stuck on a desert island, I figure escapism to a magical place of my childhood might be just what the doctor ordered.

Book choice two: Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (selected and edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi)

I'd always been one of those 'girls can do anything' kids and when I got to university and started studying for my Bachelor of Arts, I was exposed to a wealth of ideas about feminism. When I continued on to study Literature papers in my Grad Dip Arts (to make up for the fact that, oddly, I did no undergrad Lit papers in my BA) the interest continued and grew and I focused a lot on the literature of women. This book was a required text for one of my papers and one I really enjoyed for the fact that you could dip in and out of it and it always gave you something to think about. I know that if I'm going to be alone with nothing but trees to talk to for an indefinite period of time, I'll need something to keep me thinking to stave off the insanity!

Book choice three: Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (edited with intro from Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George) 

Expanding on the point above, this book was also a required text. Sexton's poetry isn't exactly of the uplifting variety so it's more likely that I'll be reading it on the beach in the day time rather than by the camp fire at night but it's got a lot to it so will give me something to think about.

Book choice four: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Some books you can read and read and they never get old. For me, Wuthering Heights is one of those books and it's not because I wish that I could have a dark and moody lover named Heathcliff brooding over me. The main reason I love this book is the atmosphere, the stormy Yorkshire moors, the old stone houses and the creaking gates in the wind... *shiver*. Absolutely fantastic!

Book choice five: The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the birth of Modern China by Emma Pakula.

I'm noticing that a lot of my choices are non-fiction and/or educational. This one is all about the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, the first President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Apparently she was something of a power-house and by all accounts, one helluva interesting lady so I thought why not take the time to learn something about the history and formation of my husband's country of origin from the perspective of one of the most powerful women at that time.

Gribbin Head Lighthouse
Image credit: Wild About Britain
Book choice six: Lighthouses by Jenny Linford

Growing up on the rugged and beautiful coastline of Cornwall means I have salt water running through my veins. I never feel more alive than when I'm standing on a cliff top, looking out over the ocean, preferably with a good strong breeze blowing through my hair. As a result, when I moved away from the Cornish coast to the more sedate (but still beautiful) coastline of Auckland, I became a little obsessed with lighthouses. My old office at Massey University was plastered with pictures of lighthouses, and since I worked in a Psych department there were of course more than a few Freudian explanations offered for this love of mine! Nothing Freudian about it, honest. I just find them evocative and beautiful and they remind me of romping along the cliff paths in St. Austell Bay towards Gribbin Head.

Book choice seven: The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book was recommended to me by a friend but I haven't read it yet. I figure that if there is ever a time I will need to be consoled, it'll be when I'm stuck on a desert island.

Book choice eight: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My father read this to my younger brother and I when we were kids. I loved the book, I loved the movies and it's a massive book which means it will keep me occupied for a while. There's nothing like a bit of Mordor to distract from the fact you're stranded, right?

Luxury item: Unlimited supply of writing supplies.

What would some of your Desert Island book choices be? Luxury item?


  1. Love the selections...although I would hesitate to get behind the Madame Chiang Kai-shek book simply because I believe that Taiwan is not and never was "China" even if it was ruled by China at some point in ancient history.

    I'd still read the book of course - I just wouldn't bring it to a desert island where I'd have nobody to rant at about how Taiwan is not China after reading it :)

  2. Jenna - I had a feeling you might not like that one book! ;) Fair enough but she's a woman that fascinates me despite any of the political stuff.

  3. Oh, I love the idea of choosing special books for the "desert island," and also think it's fabulous that you found a way to get the podcasts.



  4. Ooooh. This is definitely a blog post for later in the week, because I'll have to put some thought into it. I think one of our local NPR stations had a version of Desert Island Discs, which I also enjoyed. I couldn't believe as I was scrolling down your list to come upon the last one, which would have been first on my list, because I've read and reread so many times as a teen but still think I'd get something out of it if I reread as an adult -- and would continue to read on an island.

  5. I'm with you on choices 4 & 8, Wuthering Heights is just the best! Haven't read the rest ...but someday I might! :)

  6. I love that I could pick 8 books instead of the usual 1! Hmm, I think they would be:
    1. Pride & Prejudice--that old favorite
    2. Chesapeake by James Michener--read it years ago and loved it but can't remember it. It's nice and long and there's a lot to learn.
    3. Brideshead Revisited - because I love Evelyn Waugh but have shockingly never read this one
    4. Team of Rivals - again, I love Doris Kearns Goodwin, it's long and I could learn something
    5. The Bible - kind of predictable but full of good things to consider
    6. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago - mystery & history--yea!
    7. something by David Sedaris so I wouldn't forget how to laugh
    8 Leave of Grass by Walt Whitman - so I would have poetry and be reminded to appreciate what was all around me.

  7. At the risk of being a "bloke" I would take an as yet unread book called "Devlin's Boatbuilding: How to Build Any Boat the Stitch-and-Glue Way"...for obvious reasons...
    If that was not allowed - or considered cheating - that I would likely take the entire collection of Raymond Chandler's Novels, and as many Lindsay Davis Books as I could get in a bag. Noir Crime and Historical Novels about Ancient Rome. History and Pulp in one hit...

  8. The Desert Island books sound great. I think the boarding school book sounds great.

  9. She is a fascinating woman, and I wouldn't mind a book that discussed her politics in the light of "this is really what she thought and really what she did"...I guess the title, which implies that Taiwan is China ("The Birth of Modern China"?) would make me feel like the author swallowed the KMT party line.

    I'd actually choose "400 Years of Taiwan's Democracy" written by that 92-year old Taiwanese guy first, though!

  10. Laurel-Rain - Thanks for stopping by!
    Unfinished person - Did you figure out what would be on your list yet? :) Yeah LOTR is an absolute classic. Just because it was last on my list doesn't mean it is the least wanted book on the island. In fact if I had to choose only one to take, that would very likely be the one I take.
    Reena - I ADORE Wuthering Heights! It will never get old.
    Steve - Hate to break it to you but technically that's cheating! ;)
    Diane - It is a great book. An absolute staple of my childhood.
    Jenna - Ah right right I see what you mean. No idea yet will give the full report once I get around to reading it. And then I will read the 400 years of Taiwan's Democracy for comparison :) Thanks for recommending it.

  11. I'm thinking Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, the Harry Potter series...I could go on and on. Luxury items would probably toothpaste or deoderant - couldn't live without either one! ;)