The brief is this: which five books would you take with you on a desert island? Five seems unnecessarily cruel, when the radio wallahs decreed eight songs, but a book takes up more space in your head than a song (he claims, controversially), so I suppose this is fair.
How to choose? I need things that will occupy my mind and give me hope, bring back memories of home that aren’t too painful, and allow me to contemplate the worlds I’ve left behind. So: my favourite book, an ideas book, a book I’ve never managed to complete but will now have the time, a book of poetry, and a book that might bring me closer to the island on which I’ve been marooned.
So, in that order, here they are: my Desert Island Books.
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
This, without any shadow of a doubt, is my favourite book in the world. I’ve read it three times, I’ll read it at least another three times, and it never fails to enchant and astonish me.
The book was published as a serial in Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine beginning in 1880. It’s the story of Isabel Archer, a young woman from New York state who comes to England and meets the Touchett family, inherits a vast fortune, and falls into the grasp of two of the wickedest characters I know of: Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. I’ve seen a lot of horror films, and read a lot of horror stories, and I’ve never read a character as perversely attractive and awful as Madame Merle.
The reason I keep coming to this book is its core mystery: what motivates Isabel Archer? I always think of it as a companion piece to Billy Budd, in which the hatred and antipathy of Claggart towards Billy is never properly explained. Isabel’s apparently wilful destruction of her own prospects is just as baffling.
Of course, the book is elegant and beautiful – this is Henry James, the Master – but at its dark heart is a cloud of unknowing, the impossibility of really understanding another person. I think it’s hilarious that Henry’s brother William wrote to him some years after to say of his later novels:
The method seems perverse: ‘Say it out, for God’s sake,’ they cry, ‘and have done with it.’ And so I say now, give us one thing in your older directer manner.
No, William! You have it the wrong way around!
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
This is the ideas book, and it’s the novel that got me writing historical fiction. It shows how the past informs the present – in fact, how the present is inevitable given what has happened in the past. It’s also of personal importance to me, because it came out soon after I stopped working in print journalism and migrated to working on the Internet – and Stephenson does an amazing job of explaining the importance of the technological revolution which we’re still in the middle of, and drawing the roots of that revolution back to beyond the Second World War and even further, to the 17th century.
Stephenson started as a very good science fiction writer, but Cryptonomicon isn’t an SF novel, even though it looks at the world with an SF writer’s eye for ideas and concepts. The book is split across two time periods (a trick I’ve borrowed myself a few times). One story deals with WWII codebreakers and operatives at Bletchley Park. The parallel story has a bunch of folks, some of who are descendants of the characters in the WWII story, who are using the latest digital technology to build a secure, independent digital data vault, impenetrable by governments, in a fictional sultanate. They want to use this store both to develop a digital currency, and to help vulnerable populations develop technologies to defend themselves from genocidal maniacs. This part of the book is about freedom and liberty, and it’s a magnificent thought experiment.
It sounds bonkers – it is bonkers – and that summary doesn’t do justice to how exciting it all is; there are some astonishing action scenes. It’s a glorious celebration of geek culture, and it arrived in 1999, some years before we even began to experience what geek culture was. I’ve only read it once, and I need to read it again. Who knows? Maybe I’ll set up an independent data haven on my desert island.
Ulysses, James Joyce
I’ve never finished this book. I’ve run at it a half-dozen times, and I’ve always found myself lost in its deepest thickets, losing my grip on the narrative, the allusions, the cultural references. Paradoxically, I’ve always really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with it. Why I’ve not been able to finish it, then, is a little mystifying. Perhaps it’s just too rich, like pouring truffle oil on your breakfast every morning. I need the space and the time to indulge in it. The Student Edition, though, if you please. And I’ll need a new copy – mine is falling apart after those earlier aborted attempts.
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
I think I’ll need a book of poetry. There’s nothing like losing yourself in a novel, but a good line of poetry can keep you thinking for a whole day. I thought about going for one of the Romantics, Coleridge probably, if I could have a few of his essays thrown in as well. But I wanted something more mysterious, something I have trouble getting a grip on today, poems that might benefit from spending extended hours with. So, I’m going to go for Wallace Stevens, whose collected edition I’ve had since I was 18. It’s a book I can open any day and lose myself in for a bit, before putting it down and realising I haven’t understood a single line.
Also, Stevens said this: Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake. I find that to be perfect.
The Age of Wonders, Richard Holmes
This book inspired me to write my second novel, The Poisoned Island, and it’s a book that I hope will put me in closer touch with my desert island – and perhaps give me the means to escape from it. It’s a big, meaty book about the great scientific discoveries of the late 18th century, and its full title describes it perfectly: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.
It focuses on the work of three giants of scientific research – Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy. Banks, in particular, has featured heavily in all my books, as I think he personifies the ambivalent magnificence of British exploration and discovery at this time. Banks can be my guide as I try and identify the flora and fauna of the island, Herschel can help me identify the stars, and who knows? Perhaps Davy can help me build a rocket or a submarine or just a really efficient signal flare.
But not until I’ve finished Ulysses.
Lloyd Shepherd is the author of four novels featuring the proto-detective Charles Horton and his wife Abigail, who find themselves enmeshed in the mysterious and frightening worlds blossoming in the wake of Britain’s growing global might at the beginning of the 19th century. The latest, The Detective and the Devil, is out now.