Deserted island books

You’ve probably heard someone ask someone else what books they would take to a deserted island. It’s usually implied that you’re bringing books for pleasure, not books that would help you survive on the island or leave it.

People often answer the question with a list of their favorite books, perhaps skewed in favor of long books. But I don’t think you should take books that have been your favorites in the past. You should take what you think would be your favorite books on a deserted island. I expect my tastes there would be very different than they are in my current suburban life.

I think of books that I could only read on a desert island, books that I’ve enjoyed in small portions but ordinarily would not have the patience to read cover-to-cover. For example, I’ve found portions of Donald Knuth’s series The Art of Computer Programming enjoyable and useful, but I can’t say I’ve read it all. Perhaps on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions I’d enjoy going through it carefully line by line, attempting all the exercises. I might even learn MMIX, something I can’t imagine doing under ordinary circumstances.

Along those lines, I might want to take some works by Thomas Aquinas such as his Summa Theologica or his commentaries on Aristotle. The little I’ve read of Aquinas has been profound, and more approachable than I expected. Still, I find it hard to read much of him. Alone on an island I might take the time to read him carefully.

For math, I might want to take Spivak’s differential geometry series, depending on how long I expect to be on this island. If I’m going to be there too long and I’m limited on books, I might want to take something else that’s more dense and less familiar.

For science, I’d take Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. I’ve intended to read that book for many years and have started a couple times. In college I couldn’t afford this price; now I can’t afford the time.

For fiction, I’d take Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series because I haven’t read it, I’ve heard it is very well written, and it’s long.

6 thoughts on “Deserted island books

  1. I have read all of the (finished) Aubrey/Maturin books and they are a delight. I strongly urge you to start reading them now – waiting to read these on a deserted island means missing out on an incredibly fun series of books.


  2. I recently came across this advice for reading Summa (or probably just Aquinas in general?).:

    A note to theologians: from the “I just now achieved Captain Obvious status” files:

    I finally figured out how to read Aquinas’ Summa. Instead of reading from objection 1 to the reply to the final objection in linear fashion, I skim read objection 1 and move directly to “Sed Contra,” then “I answer that…” and then double back and read objection 1, reply to objection 1, objection 2, reply to objection 2, etc.

    When reading in linear fashion, I could never remember the objection he was responding to…

  3. The Aubrey/Maturin series is perfect — not only is it very long and very very good, but it is extremely re-readable. Plus, if you run out of other things to do, you can write your own ending to the unfinished 21st novel…

  4. Are you aware of the UK radio programme Desert Island Discs in which a distinguished guest is asked to name the eight records and one book (over and above the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, which come as standard) which they’d choose to take to a desert island with them? There is an archive of 1500 programmes going back to 1942, and some of them are really fascinating (though there are a few too many pointless non-entities from the worlds of stage and screen for my taste).

  5. Yes, Aquinas would be nice and so would Aristotle but my preference would be the Essays of Michele Montaigne or the Pensees of Blaise Pascal.

  6. I had a second thought. If I were on a desert island and my situation precarious I would definitely want to re-read The Consolation of Philosophy by Severinus Bothius.

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