A World Without Books and Other Catastrophes, or Why I Hate the Desert Island Game

Recently on our first BiblioFiles podcast, Ian posed the Desert Island Question:  If you were confined to a desert island with only three books, which would you choose? He and the rest of the CenterForLit staff laughed when I struggled to name three. I couldn’t decide. I was paralyzed. How could I possibly narrow it down to a mere three titles? 

As a child whenever my family went on vacations, my bags were always the heaviest. They were full of books I couldn’t leave behind. “Missy, just choose one!  You’ll never have time to read them all,” my mother would complain. I never knew, though, which one I’d need; so I’d bring a smattering of my favorites. Nine times out of ten, only one of them would ever make it out of my bag, but I had the comfort of knowing the others were there, available to me like good friends on the journey. 

In our podcast game, I tried to slip an anthology into my mix of desert island favorites, but alas, no dice.  They wouldn’t have it. Those misers would have me name only three works! Seriously, upon reflection weeks later, I still can’t decide on three. Should I take Donne’s poetry, or Hopkin’s verse? Shall I depend upon C.S. Lewis’s vision, or Dante’s? Do I bank on Dickens for company, or Chaucer’s pilgrims? What will my parched soul need on that island, and whose works will best water me?

C.S. Lewis would have understood my indecisiveness, I think. He said in An Experiment in Criticism, his treatise on reading, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.” Lewis would have understood that for me, the limitation of three books actualizes the isolation of the desert island.

Seeing through the eyes of others is an experience, and once had, demands repetition.  Having seen through the eyes of another, the appetite grows for larger vision, new sights, variety of experience.  Soon, a melodious harmony of sights and sounds, questions and answers, ideas and visions combine to form a symphony of thought in the reader’s mind. He sees the world. He sees his neighbors. He sees himself more clearly. He has been released from the confines and limitations of his own place, time, and experience; by standing, as T.S. Eliot suggested in his Tradition and the Individual Talent, ‘upon the shoulders of giants,’ he has gained perspective – enlightenment. 

Would that there were a Spotify Discover of books! You know the app, don’t you? It tracks the kind of music you’re listening to and suggests new artists you might like based on the data. Wouldn’t it be nice to find an app that did that for readers?  “Based upon the authors you seem to love, here are a few new book recommendations for you.”  Wow!  Amazon’s “customers who’ve bought this item have also bought” list is the closest thing to this that I’ve discovered online, and it’s far from the tool I’m describing. 

Closer is Mortimer Adler’s Syntopicon of Western Literature, composed as a companion to the Great Books set which he and his colleagues created for Encyclopedia Brittanica back in the early 1950s.  Adler’s Syntopicon is a catalogue of the great ideas of Western literature, cross referenced so as to facilitate a reader’s participation in the ancient and ongoing discussion about universals which exists between the great authors.  In essence, Adler’s Syntopicon is the “Spotify Discover” of literature.  (You can, incidentally, sometimes find the Great Books series at garage sales for a song. The set remains in publication, now in its second edition. Consider this a plug!)  The best thing about this tool is that it furthers the reader’s participation in the great conversation by introducing him to an expansive network of thinkers who’ve left a breadcrumb trail for other’s to follow on their intellectual journey. The Syntopicon is the anti-Desert Island Game.

So, consider me on record as protesting against the Desert Island Game.  Yes, Lewis would certainly have hated this game, too. Literature, he suggests, “irrigates the deserts our lives have become.”  Water in the desert. Company on the journey. Eyes and voices beyond my own. Not three books, but a library is what I must hope to find on my own desert island. To insure it, I’ll continue now to populate my mind with the great characters, works, and ideas of literature, storing up against the catastrophe of a world without books. Then, I’ll never really be alone.