Desert Island Books

There seem to be a lot of lists of Desert Island books out there, such as this one here on Nancy Pearl’s Booklust site, or this person’s Flickr album, or this cute cartoon thingy. What bugs me is that no matter how many interesting or worthwhile titles one finds on these lists, almost none of them take place on islands, desert or otherwise!  I mean call me crazy, but doesn’t that seem like false advertising to you? To correct this all-too-common omission, here is my own list of bonafide, 100% Desert Island books:

  • The Cure at Troy, by Seamus Heaney, is a good recent version of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, the tale of a wounded warrior abandoned on a tiny island by his so-called brothers-in-arms.
  • The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. By the time Prospero is through, this desert island gets pretty crowded. (If you don’t ‘get’ the bard, seeing felons rehearsing this play in Shakespeare Behind Bars could make you a believer).
  • Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. A childhood favorite of mine, this one’s so influential that pretty much every other book on this list falls into the genre “Robinsonade.” As in Johann David Wyss’s 1812 Robinsonade, Swiss Family Robinson(ade). Or Nobel Prize-Winning South African author J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 Robinsonade, Foe, which has a modern woman stumbling into the mix. Read sordid details about the real life castaway who inspired Defoe in Diana Souhami’s Selkirk’s Island.
  • The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne. A motley crew of five intrepid souls escape the Civil War in a hot air balloon, only to find themselves in a brave new world. A thumping good read, possibly Verne’s best.
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells. Speaking of mysterious islands, here’s a prescient tale about a castaway who bioengineers some wierd company.
  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. You read this in school, right? If not, it is sort of like the children having an island adventure in Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water, except for the part where they do horrible things to each other, revealing mankind’s essential savagery. (See: Evil Children.) Not content to maroon little kiddies, Golding also wrote Pincher Martin, in which he plops a sailor onto a tiny barren rock..
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell. This timeless childen’s classic about a young girl stranded alone on an island for eighteen years casts a spell all its own. A book to read early, and to return to in later years. Other worthwhile children’s desert island books include The Cay, by Theodore Taylor, and Kensuke’s Kingdom, by Michael Morpurgo.
  • Concrete Island, by J.G. Ballard. Perhaps the strangest Robinsonade of all, concerning an architect who crashes his car and finds himself stranded in a small hidden median at the intersection of three highways. (Here’s an interesting hunt for the real concrete island). Meanwhile for the hero of Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, a desert island would be a godsend. As it is, he’s shipwrecked on a ship.

If this has you wanting more, take a look at Walter de la Mare’s Desert Islands, a survey of literary castaways up to 1930. And for some truly interesting not quite desert islands, look at Sergio Ghione’s Turtle Island: A Journey to the World’s Most Remote Island, Johannes Willms’ Napoleon & St Helena: On the Island of Exile, and – for a farcical treatment of same – Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! in an Adventure with Napoleon. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the most famous desert island of all. (Eat your heart out, Lost)

2 thoughts on “Desert Island Books”

  1. I think that Mysterious Island is Verne’s best book (and I’ve read more than the usuals, e.g. The Master of the World or The Fantastic
    Balloon Voyage). It is long on natural science (including Latin names of flora and fauna) and short on the science fiction.

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