This is fun, because my first novel (unpublished) was about three people on an island – not a desert one but a tropical one so I could have snakes, volcanoes, and so on – and I made it really difficult for them by not having any books at all. By the end of the novel one of them was insane, driven mad by boredom, so that proves how important books are! So, I have often wondered what books I would want with me in that situation, bearing in mind that I would have to read them over…and over…and over again, the only books I’ll ever have, so they had better yield continual entertainment, intellectual challenges, or comfort. That being my criteria, here they are:
A book that changes as you do, and has layer upon layer of stories, existential questions, history, poetry, and an infinite number of interpretations. The only question is which translation? The King James is beautiful but difficult to understand at times, whereas modern translations can be flat-footed.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
Like the Bible, see above! Layer after layer of meaning, existential questions, many interpretations, plot twists, and sublime poetry. Plus, it’s cinematic. Can’t you just see Lear on the heath, Cleopatra with her asp, and Juliet on the balcony? And if I get bored I can do one-woman performances for myself as audience.
Complete Poetry of A.E. Housman
He is not so popular today as he once was, but I love his melancholy mood and would find it entirely appropriate for my situation on the island alone. “To think that two and two are four and neither five nor three, the heart of man has long been sore and long ’tis like to be” is a stern reality check. And of course the wry observation “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man” acknowledges the limits of theology as an explanation for life’s mysteries.
Complete Poetry of Emily Dickinson
The poet of the otherworldly, the essence of life that lies just out of sight, what better for a desert island? She is also a keen nature writer, observant of tiny details around her, grass and snakes and dew, to take me back home again. “The bat is dun with wrinkled wings…”
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The story of one man, Jay Gatsby (if that is his true persona and not an invented one, so American), who is also the story of the pursuit of the American Dream. Fitzgerald’s lyrical language, beautiful in itself, will soothe me and take me back home again when I get nostalgic for the cars, the gangsters, and rich New Yorkers.
If I had only one more, I would add The Encyclopedia Britannica as that would keep me busy for a while!
Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.
Look out for our interview with Margaret, coming soon!