• What Is Your Desert Island Book?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 26 comments

    The other day I was watching the episode of The Office where Ryan starts a fire and the gang mills around in the parking lot playing “Desert Island.” Each person gets to choose three books, and Jim reminds them that these are the books they’ll be forced to read over and over again for the rest of their lonely lives, barring rescue.

    Dwight chooses the Physician’s Desk Reference, but then goes on to say that the book is hollowed out, and inside he has matches, a knife, whatever other survival gear. And then, “in case I get bored,” he also chooses a Harry Potter book.

    Like these things do, it got me to thinking about what my desert island books would be. And when I think of anything related to books or my own writing, I naturally wonder about all of you too.

    Choosing three books seems too easy. Choosing one is difficult.

    Your turn: What is your one desert island book? And, most importantly, why? 

    I don’t necessarily think that a desert island book is automatically your favorite book.

    Maybe you know your favorite book so well that you can already envision it scene by scene.

    Maybe your favorite book is only 120 pages long, and so if you’re going to choose something to read again and again for the rest of your life, you want it to be War and Peace sized?

    Maybe you’d choose the dictionary? Or one volume of an old encyclopedia? Probably the letter M.

    I haven’t decided on my answer yet. Isn’t that crappy of me?

    I have it narrowed down to a few things from our shelf: We have this huge Oxford Shakespeare that contains every play. That might be nice. We have the Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Centurywhich runs from 1915, for some reason, through 1999. Probably not a ton of diversity, but at least there’s plenty of variety.

    I considered picking one volume of our Paris Review interviews, or this massive collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters. But I think I’d want something narrative.

    Maybe I’d choose between Johnny Tremain and The Coast of Chicago. Perhaps the latter, because of its options, being a story collection rather than a novel.

    Besides, I know Johnny Tremain front to back. Remember, your favorite book is not necessarily your best choice!

    OK, I’d better choose something so as not to seem like a crazy person. I think I’ll discard Shakespeare, since I think I’d miss prose.

    And I think I have to get rid of Johnny Tremain, which breaks my heart. It’s so short, one can read it in a few hours. And I can practically recite it as is.

    So that leaves the Best American and Stuart Dybek.

    The Dybek offers familiarity and just general awesomeness. But Best American offers variety, some of the unknown (there are a bunch of stories in there I’ve never read), and length. So for those reasons, I think I’d have to choose it.

    Now, if someone wants to collect in one volume every single story Stuart Dybek has ever written, well, maybe that would change things. Or maybe not. The variety thing might be super important, stuck on a desert island, looking at the same scenery day after day after day.

    OK, so my winner, at least from the stuff on our shelves, is Best American Short Stories of the Century.

    What’s yours?


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written for books for the Dallas Morning News, the Iowa ReviewElectric Literature, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project you’d like help with or an idea to get off the ground, check out our coaching, editing, and publication services.

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    Can I just say an anthology? ID want to choose a giant literature textbook, like one of those Norton anthologies where they collect 1,000 pages of Russian literature. There would be the variety and length, like you talk about, and my retention is so bad that by the time I get back around to the beginning I’d have forgotten most of what I read. Time would pass. And the content would probably match my outlook, if I were trapped forever on an island. Why’s it always a desert island? Put me on some kind of cold Northern island where my… Read more »


    I still have my Norton anthology from college! Mine is English lit., and yes, that would be a good one to bring. There is so much variety that I doubt I could memorize it all while I was on the island.

    david lemke

    That cold and story northern island would keep you too busy what with trying to keep warm, hunting seals and running from polar bears!

    Marcia Drut-Davis

    For me, it would have to be: CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jeane M Auel. It was a forever lesson how one woman can survive as she comes more and more self-confident and defiant to challenge obstacle after obstacle and won! For myself, facing condemnation for being childfree and speaking my truths about it, I often think back to that heroine. It would also help that it’s a huge read! (WINK)

    david lemke

    That would certainly be a good choice, but having read three of the series which includes; “Valley Of The Horses,” “The Mammoth Hunter,” “The Plains Of Passage,” “The Shelter Of Stone” and “The Land Of Painted Caves.” (I don’t know if there are any more) but It would be torture after the first one because I’d want to read the rest of the series.


    I’d bring Swiss Family Robinson, because there might be something in their island adventures that could help me. Why I’d be carrying it, I can’t say, but if I travel by plane, over the ocean, any time soon, I’ll be sure to have it in my carry on. LOL!

    Elissa Malcohn

    My partner has an old Boy Scout survival manual, so that would be my practical choice. I would also want a blank book (and working pens!), to document my experiences on the island. As for leisure reading, that’s a tough choice. The first book to come to mind is Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, followed closely by Robyn Davidson’s Tracks; both detail rugged travel across Australia. Or Alexandra David-Neel’s book My Journey to Lhasa. Free-associating brings up books whose authors have persevered through challenges in unfamiliar environments. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki is another. So, at least without putting a lot of thought… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    A few books have affected me so deeply that I bought several copies just to give away. The Songlines is one of them, not least for Chatwin’s musings during his travels. This quote became the epigraph for my Deviations series: “What is so beguiling about a specialist predator is the idea of an intimacy with the Beast! For if, originally, there was one particular Beast, would we not want to fascinate him as he fascinated us? Would we not want to charm him, as the angels charmed the lions in Daniel’s cell?”

    david lemke

    I found “Best American Short Stories of the Century.” on a shelf so that was my first candidate, but then I picked up Peter F Hamilton’s “The Neutronium Alchemist” which was longer. Finally I settled on “Sherlock Homes, The Complete Stories” with a whopping 1408 pages. Since all three of these are books I want to read, I’m picking Sir Author Conan Doyle to pack for the desert island. Since I don’t actually know how long I may be there, maybe a basketball or “The Disaster Preparedness Handbook might be of more practical value.

    Barbara Mealer

    I’d want “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. It’s my go to book to keep myself on an even keel. It’s one you can read over and over and learn something new each time. If I can’t take that then give me The Bible as it has a lot of history and good stuff in it (think intrigue, wars, love, etc.).

    Jerry Schwartz

    My first choice would be some survivalist handbook, but I guess that’s not in the spirit of things. I’d have to go with the fattest anthology of humorous stories I could find.

    Swiss Family Robinson would probably not be useful. They had an entire ship to plunder for supplies. It would be like bringing scripts for Gilligan’s Island.

    What kind of Swiss family is named Robinson anyways? I’ve wondered about that since I was a kid.


    With a combination of heft, variety, and darned good writing, I’d have to go with The Stories of John Cheever.

    david lemke

    I love John Cheever. I totally re-wrote my novel “Intrusion” with Cheever’s opinionated god third person.

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