Desert island books

During undergrad, my film professor said that were she trapped on a desert island, the two films she would want to have with her were Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The woman had impeccable tastes and inspired in me a deep love for horror and the macabre. While I am not sure about films, I have often thought about the books I would want with me on a desert island. The following, in no particular order, are some of my essential desert island books.

Hyperion (1989) Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989)

I discovered Hyperion late in high school when I had just started to really read book with depth, and what depth this book has! Simmons weaves the structure of The Canterbury Tales and the poetry of John Keats into a masterful scifi epic. A book one can read over and over, each new visit to Hyperion reveals nuances and references previously missed. It is a scifi epic that has something for everyone: a father worried deeply for his daughter’s health, a military man battleworn and weary, a forlorn poet in search of his muse, a detective searching for the answer to a complicated mystery.

Even though each traveler’s tale is different than the last—sometimes moving into what seems to be an entirely different genre—the shifts never feel awkward or disjointed. Simmons’ skill in storytelling shines here as each character spins a separate tale which gradually interweave and coalesce into a complete, interconnected whole.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)Dune (1965)

There is not much to say about Dune that has not already been said: it is widely regarded as one of the best scifi epics of all time, if not the best. Herbert’s worldbuilding creates a universe and cast of character that live, breathe, suffer, and die before the reader’s eyes. The reader comes to care for Paul Atreides, Lady Jessica, Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, and even Yueh.

“Yueh! Yueh! Yueh!” goes the refrain. “A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!”
— from A Child’s History of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan

But what draws me back to Dune again and again is the rhythm of the words. In the Dune universe, one must learn to walk without rhythm across the sands of Arrakis for fear of attracting the sandworms. Yet, seeming in contrast to this idea, Herbert’s writing is rhythmic, hypnotic, lulling the reader with the power of the Voice. It is beautiful and powerful, and something in the writing pulls at me in a way I have never experienced elsewhere.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

I have not read much by Oscar Wilde—one of my many character flaws—but I adore The Picture of Dorian Gray deeply. There is something timeless in the characters of Dorian, Basil, and Lord Henry, thus the many adaptations, like the 1945 film (with young Angela Lansbury!). I also admire the subtly of the horror in Dorian Gray: it creeps in slowly, like the changes to Basil’s portrait of Dorian.

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition shortly after its release in 2011, and I recommend it for fellow Dorian Gray lovers or Wildephiles. The explanations of references otherwise easily missed is illuminating. Additionally, Frankel notes where there are differences in the printed text from Wilde’s original manuscript; seeing what was censored from the text is a good reminder of the difference between our time and what was considered acceptable or scandalous then.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)The Metamorphosis (1915)

Another classic, Die Verwandlung, translated as The Metamorphosis or The Transformation, is a chilling story of alienation, both physical and social. The novella begins without preamble or scene-setting with Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a “monstrous vermin” and follows him as he adjusts to his new life. He does well enough. His family’s adjustments to the change? Not so good.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of his transformation is that Gregor does not question it, or wonder how it came to be. He is more concerned with being late for work or how his family will view his new insectoid form. Kafka is a master at the bizarre and strange, and in this story his art excels.

Where the Wild Things Are (1963)Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)

What book would be more appropriate to have on a desert island than this? In Where the Wild Things Are, Max journeys on a boat to a fantastical island, full of the Wild Things. A childhood favorite of mine, I still return to the land of the Wild Things every so often to be drawn in once again by the enchanting story and the even more captivating illustrations.

There is a beauty in this story’s simplicity and in the fearsome Wild Things. Max’s bravery though “the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws” is touching, as is his ultimate return home. I’m not generally a fan of happy endings—they can be too neat and tidy, sacrificing character development rather than risk upsetting the reader—but this is a happy ending done well.

What about you? What are your essential desert island books?

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