The “5 Books on a Deserted Island” Challenge

But where are the coconuts?
But where are the coconuts?

By Sean Callaghan

The plane has crashed.  You made it out in one piece, but you’re stranded on some deserted island with nothing but a Swiss army knife and the wet clothes on your back.  You spot a suitcase on the beach.  It’s the only other survivor from the wreckage.  You run to it in the hopes that it holds the wares of a traveling  telecommunications officer, or someone with a fetish for night flares, or heck even a sommelier.  You pop it open and a great big genie pops out wearing a tweed jacket and thick thick glasses.  It’s a magic suitcase, and your genie announces to you in a creaky voice that he will grant you five wishes.  Before you manage to get out an “I wish for a 100 foot yacht” he puts up his hand to stop you.

“Let me finish,” he creaks.  “I will grant you five wishes for books!”

And he smiles a wicked little smile that show his tiny, sparkling teeth.  As you teeter-totter between confusion because why in God’s name would a book genie even exist when we’ve got!, rage at the Gods for giving you apples when you distinctly asked for oranges, and joy at discovering there is still magic in the world (“wait till I tell Virginia!”), the genie parks his narrow bum down on the sand and waits patiently reading a copy of tomorrow’s New York Times.  When you’ve finally gathered your bearings, you decide you might as well take best advantage of this strange miracle, and start working out your book list…

Here is my list, in the off chance I ever discover myself on a deserted island with a magic suitcase housing a genie-librarian.  I dare you to do better!

1. The SAS Survival Handbook

No brainer.  Person’s gotta eat and survive.  When I was young and naive, I actually made a plan to hike into the wilderness and live on nothing but squirrel meat and roots.  I went through this book cover to cover, and it was excessively useful.  Even still, my Walden moment lasted 9 days.  The one thing no survival manual or romantic musing on nature will ever be able to tell you – just how absolutely terrifying it is living in the wilderness when it’s just you and the animals. Or how nasty doing your toiletries without the necessary accoutrements can be.  “Use leaves” they say.  Obviously advice given by someone who has never actually tried to “use leaves” before!

2. Some kind of carpentry manual.

After watching 20+ seasons of Survivor, I know how important shelter can be.  Plus, maybe there will be something in there about building a decent boat.

3. A book of maps.

If I’m gonna build a boat to get me off this island, I might as well know which direction I need to go.  Ideally this would be a book that provided astronomy charts so I could figure where I actually am in case I wasn’t paying attention to the little airplane map they provided on the flight over.

4. The Complete Works of Spinoza with translations by Samuel Shirley

Because I might as well keep my brain sharp while I’m out here, and hey, maybe given the right amount of time I might come up with my own politico-theological system while I’m chowing down on my bananas and coconuts.  If I never got off the island, I would carve out this new system onto dried palm leaves, and put it somewhere safe, so that when I die, mad and alone, I will at least know I’ve left something to posterity.

5. Don Quixote by Cervantes

It’s long.  It’s entertaining. It’s a classic.  And Quixote will make me feel less alone in my growing madness.  Plus I would ask the genie if I could get a package deal with the English and Old Spanish together.  I mean, might as well learn a new language while I’m at it, and what better language on a deserted island than Spanish (I actually don’t know why this makes sense to me – it’s just a feeling)?  Granted, I won’t have anyone to practice on… except the genie of course, but he’s always got his nose stuck in a book.  Plus there’s always the danger you may slip up during a conversation and use one of your wishes by accident.  Suddenly, you’re sitting there with the complete works of Ayn Rand, because of some off hand remark you made in Spanish during an argument about objectivism.  Or worse, you’ll waste another wish just getting him to take the blasted volume back!  No, best to leave the genie to his reading until you’ve made all your wishes.

And there is my list for the weekend.  Think you can do better?  The gauntlet is dropped.  I challenge anyone to come up with a better deserted island list!  If I get enough responses I will post a “Best of” later next week!  Until then, happy reading.

Sean Callaghan has his PhD in Modern Japanese History and Literature from the University of Toronto.  He has written several plays for the small stage, and is currently working on a two act play, and a YA novel, meanwhile re-reading his undergrad economics textbook for fun!  He currently lives with his wife and two guinea pigs in sunny Vancouver.  He also has a blog about dealing with middle age called Ornery at 40.

4 thoughts on “The “5 Books on a Deserted Island” Challenge

  1. Oooh….a challenge! Okay…

    I agree with the picks of the SAS Handbook and book of maps. Not quite sold on the carpentry manual. And Spinoza?…no sir, not for me. 🙂

    I *might* have to bring a mental health book as I *could* go bananas within the span of a….day. Or a REALLY BIG coffee table book with which to clunk myself over the head with if things get too bad; or if there are big bugs; or if I need bigger sheets of paper for the…toilet.

    Other than that:
    Comfort reading and/or childhood classics. Lois Lowry’s Anastasia series, or Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series.

    And maybe Tolstoy. Why not have a go at Anna Karenina? Or War and Peace?

  2. Mental health book! Of course, why didn’t I think of that! But then what mental health book would be adequate to dealing with complete isolation!? I’d probably end up taking the book and cutting up little faces of people I’d talk to from the pages – call them the Wilson clan. Meanwhile, we haven’t even dealt with the… er… physical health side of things (I was going to include a big book of porn, but wondered if that would do more harm than good long term). And do they have compendiums for the Darling and Anastasia series’? Wouldn’t the danger be that the genie would nail you on wishes for multi-volume collections by using up whatever wishes you have left. “Great Genie, I get two volumes of 1Q84, but don’t get to find out the end, and those were my last two wishes…” But then maybe it would force you to write your own third book… hmmm… that sounds like the beginnings of a new challenge!

  3. 1. The complete Twilight series (excellent for fire starters. Ha, had you scared there for a moment, didn’t I?)

    2. Encyclopedia of Medicial Plants

    3. Wilderness Survival Guide

    4. The Lord of the Rings

    5. An empty journal to write in. 🙂

    1. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants! Brilliant! And the empty journal – because it’ll save all that time trying to figure out how to turn palm leaves into paper. I don’t think the Encyclopedia or the SAS Handbook has that covered… Too bad they don’t have the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in one giant unabridged volume – though I wonder how the genie would feel about kindle editions?

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