Departing for a Desert Island? Don't Set Sail Without These Books

ESSAY

May 01, 1994|By Bruce Jackson

The memo said all English professors were to list five books undergraduates ought to have read, along with brief justifications. Responses would be printed and distributed on the campus.

Simple enough. I can think of plenty of books undergraduates ought to have read. That was the rub: dozens, then scores, then what seemed a limitless number of important or wonderful titles passed before my mind's eye. Whatever five books I selected, my colleagues were sure to say, "Jackson, how could you have left out X and Y and Z? You're not a literary person after all. Return the laser printer and the keys to the big office."

A few days later the person who'd issued the memo cornered me in the mailroom. I said I wasn't going to respond because I didn't like the question.

"What's wrong with the question?" she asked.

I gave reasons. Her look said they were inadequate. Finally, to get rid of her, I said, "If you'd asked what books I'd bring to a desert island, that would have been easy. The question you sent, it's just a lousy question."

She shrugged. "OK," she said, "the question now is, 'What books would you bring to a desert island?' "

"Doesn't matter," I said. "Your deadline was last Monday."

"I lied. It's really next Monday."

"Which desert island?" I said.

"Who cares?" she said.

OK, it's a pleasant tropical island with abundant plant and animal life. Since there might not be any replacement books for a long time, each book I take must warrant multiple readings. I like books by James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald and Kurt Vonnegut, but I never read them twice so they stay behind.

I'll bring the best first-aid book in the world. I'm not sure what it is, but before I sail I'll find out. It will tell me how to use everything in my enormous medical kit, how to tell if aches and pains come from a bad mood or a bodily disorder, and what to do in either case. It will tell me how to identify and use the medicinal herbs and barks abundant on the island, how to use mud and spider webs to stanch blood flow. I'll read the first-aid book until I have it mostly memorized, and now and then I'll read it again. When things are happening that you need a first-aid book for you may not have the time or desire to read about them.

"Gray's Anatomy." Practical medical stuff is in the first-aid book. I want "Gray's Anatomy" just so I can relearn some things I once knew. When I was 13 an older boy on my block gave me his copy of "Gray's." He'd been accepted at college and he was going to medical school after that. He would take biology and anatomy at college and he surely wouldn't need this ratty old book, but I might find it useful.

Indeed I would: My mother had told everyone that I was going to medical school and I had to get ready. I learned from "Gray's Anatomy" the names of every bone, muscle, major nerve and blood vessel in the human body. When other kids on my block were using their half-dozen anatomical terms for insults, I could rattle off biceps flexor ulnaris and inferior mesenteric ganglion, to say nothing of naming the carpo-metacarpal articulations. But it's all gone, and I miss the knowledge.

Another book full of practical information I've long wanted the leisure to read is "The Cambridge History of Astronomy." It's too heavy and bulky for airplane reading. "The CHA" explains (with gorgeous graphics) solstices and equinoxes, states of cosmic matter, workings of the solar system, behavior of normal galaxies, behavior of the other galaxies. (Did you ever wonder what the abnormal galaxies are up to? This book tells all.)

Literature can give you access to the experiences of real and imaginary people who've been in your position (going it alone, that is). I'll bring along Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe." I'll bring "On Walden Pond": It's a swell book. I'll also bring Jean Malaurie's "The Last Kings of Thule," one of the great books of Arctic exploration. It'll provide solace during the brief, but fierce, rainy season on the island: I'll read about people who froze to death above the Arctic Circle and be thankful for my location.

One long Henry James novel. I've always disliked long Henry James novels. For a long time after I became an English professor I was troubled by this literary dyspepsia, but I came to terms with it just as I came to terms with the fact that I would never be as tall and slim as Michael Jordan or Clint Eastwood. I may never read this novel during my tenure on the island, but it will be there with the others to remind me how much pleasure I get from all the other books.

"Gone With the Wind." I've never read "Gone With the Wind." That didn't used to bother me because I've seen the movie five or six times, but my good friend Leslie Fiedler cites failure to have read "GWTW" as a prime example of academic literary parochialism. "You know who are the only people in America who haven't read "Gone With the Wind"? Leslie asks like a detective winding up a case. "English professors, that's who. What does that tell you?"

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