G.K. Chesterton was asked what book would he most like to have with him on a desert island. Slick as ever, he said, Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. And then there was the lady who was complaining to, I think, Bertrand Russell, that she couldn’t understand why all the fuss with the Bible and Shakespeare. “They are filled with cliches,” she said.
These anecdotes were on my mind when I learned that AOL published recently a list of books that must be read before handing in your dinner pail (my favorite euphemism for death, from Pelham Grenville W.). Here’s the list:
- Bible — Various
- Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell
- The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien
- Harry Potter — JK Rowling
- The Stand — Stephen King
- The Da Vinci Code — Dan Brown
- To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
- Angels and Demons — Dan Brown
- Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand
- The Catcher in the Rye — JD Salinger
When I saw these names, I first thought the roll was the result of an internet poll (regular readers know I learned my lesson here) and that the only thing missing was the, surely forthcoming, My Life by Steve Jobs, a publishing event likely to lead Apple fanboys to perpetual, unrelievable ecstasy. (I suggest that Jobs, before he cops it, farm the work out to whomever ghosted Obama’s books: gush is too weak a word to describe critics’ reactions to these entries.1) At any rate, the AOL offering is the work of one man, and more than anything, this list demonstrates the dangers and horrific consequences that can result from too much self-esteem, or watching too much television, or whatever excess it was that lead the author to such embarrassing revelations.
Incidentally, the #1 slot was given as the “Holy” Bible, fearing, as many must, that the document might be mistaken for the “Unholy” version of the same were the modifier absent. The author doesn’t say, but I strongly recommend King James’s effort for the pure beauty of the words and their, as Russell’s lady hinted, intimate familiarity.
Kahneman and Tversky’s warning about Anchoring and Adjustment is now relevant to us. We must, having read AOL’s recommendations, thoroughly purge them from our minds, lest we find they influence us in the creation of our own Top Ten. Thinking too much about the original can result in the kind of warped mental processes that lead “celebrities” to think writing children’s books are a good idea.
It is surely impossible to populate any kind of top ten list satisfactorily. No matter what is there, someone will argue persuasively that something else should have been, and many more will denounce particular choices. It’s also difficult to separate the prescriptive from the personal: am I suggesting these works to others, or are they the only books that will accompany me to a deserted isle? They must, at the least, be authors worth returning to again and again.
And whatever else the list will be, it will be too damn short, so the numbers geek in me insists I optimize both quality and quantity. Thus, here’s my (tentative) list, wherein I cheat by including multiple books that are clearly part of one whole, or are separate but can be found easily in omnibus collections, but in any case by one author (and in no particular order):
- Bible — King James edition
- Aubrey & Maturin — The Patrick O’Brian 20-book series
- Rumpole — John Mortimer’s collection (say, the first six to eight books)
- Jeeves & Wooster — PG Wodehouse (all of the series)
- Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Edward Gibbon
- Essays — Montaigne
- Plays — Shakespeare
- Collection — The thickest you can find, of Mark Twain
- Trial and Death of Socrates — Plato
- The Rationality of Induction — David Stove
Even if you despise this compilation, you can be grateful that I resisted obvious bad jokes: like including the Collected Works of Karl Marx, printed on thin paper, because toilet paper on deserted archipelagos is scarce. Or having anything by a postmodernist, like Foucault, so that, whenever tedium drove me to his pages, I would be grateful for being so far from “civilization.”
The last book is not one I recommend to everybody (it is a work of epistemology containing highly technical arguments concerning induction and logical probability), but it’s one that I cannot imagine not having read. Stove (then Jaynes) has been more influential in my professional life than any other author.
We can now play David Lodge’s humiliation: name a book you haven’t read but think others have; one point awarded for each success. Unlike Changing Places‘s unlucky professor, I have read Hamlet; but I have not yet read more than the first two volumes of Gibbon. I’ll start: with Lodge, I’ll admit also to not reading War and Peace.
1For querulous readers inclined to dispute this, I suggest your time will be more profitably spent learning What Jane Austen heroine you are. I am Marianne Dashwood (who is “impulsive, romantic, impatient, and perhaps a bit too brutally honest”); this odd quiz was linked on a page discussing the AOL list.