Today's guest post is brought to you by the inimitable @E_M_Edwards of Twitter fame. He also has a blog - Tales from the Invisible City - which details his progress on the novel he is working on. Enjoy!
Literary castaways, desert island books - novels to cling to when the flood comes and the wave breaks, what books would you choose to be marooned with upon a watery exile?
Each holiday season, it is the tiresome task of book reviewers and regular columnists to ask this question in our national newspapers. All the same, the idea of islands and books have always seemed an intriguing combination. The fact that we treasure the written word to the degree that we would consider books a key to our survival appeals.
Like Prospero, I’ve always valued my library of books (almost) as highly as I do my children. Unless your ebook reader is salt, sand, and fathom proof, I’ve also felt that the real thing was preferable, despite the advantages that a disgraced Duke of Milan might have found in a portable library able to fit in the pocket of his robes.
With a large enough cargo, you might rebuild the foundations of your lost city, erect a tower from which to signal passing freighters, construct a raft to cross the straits, or a sea-wall of literature to hold back the tempest. Tear out precious pages on which to scribe your messages for help. Apply to the legs of albatrosses, seal in old port-bottles, or exchange with merfolk for silver fish-forks.
But what books? Books of islands, books of ships, books of spells and summonings, books of sumptuous excess, herbals, and folios of mouth-watering recipes to remind the beef-and-bread-and-beer starved senses of what has been lost?
And what island? What reef, real or metaphorical, do we consider? Why islands at all? A nice lake nestled in a comfortable valley surely has its virtues. But then Islands are interesting places, exposed on all sides to invasive approach and yet isolated by the very elements which guard their shores. More than any continent, islands can not be generally reached by simply walking there, by following familiar and well-laid out paths. So too the best books. There is an element of chance, of risk, of uncertainty in any journey to these places, on or off the map. Even if we get there, we might might never return. And certainly not unchanged.
Despite their proscribed space, they hold the promise of the exotic and the atavistic. Small enough, and everything exists in a liminal state. Utopias - literally “not-places” - roc’s eggs, cyclops, sirens, dangerous human-animal hybrids, and sorceresses - the island as a literary setting has been a febrile home for imaginative speculation since tales began.
Hardly surprising that we would choose to take our stories back to them, to these mythological nests from where so many have sprung. Unlike novels of the tranquil lido or safe, continental beach, they generally are not of the disposable sort. Books to reread by oil lamps made from the secretions of shell-fish and whose covers are salt-bleached and stained by our tears. They after all, must sustain us when everything else has been lost.
For myself then, I’d choose books about islands, books about people (the former to greet, like meeting like, and the latter to remind me of what I most keenly lack in my new environment), books about clouds, and books about sand. I’d like a large tome detailing all the peculiarities of tropical corals, mostly now extinct, and one about birds and their meaning as auguries as recorded by Cicero in his two volumes of De Divinatione. I’d like a book that could transform reflections into thoughts, and thoughts into dreams, so that at night or during noon-time siestas in the lee of a thousand-year-old wind-bent juniper, I could bathe in cool starlight while regarding the earth from the sky.
A book about constructing wooden boats might be eminently useful, but less so without a good adze, timber and a reader more handy and adept with such construction than myself. I might pack a large photo album entirely of pictures of modern cities, with their titles in Braille, which I could caress with my fingers when my sight began to fail from staring into the bright emptiness of the surf. Though it would instill in me a superstitious dread of the civilizations which raised them, causing me to hide crab-like in the rocks whenever a plane buzzed by overhead or a sail broke the horizon.
I might, having brought them by the trunk-load, construct a maze out of their stacks. Invent a fantastic name for my City of Books, spelled out in pearls and bits of broken shell on the beach to be re-arranged tidally into new and ever mutating permutations. Cut out paper dolls to inhabit it, from pages too waterlogged now to read, pen up silverfish or sand-fleas as cattle behind fences of braided leather ripped from damp spines. Give sunset performances to my imaginary subjects detailing their daily lives and struggles, and declare myself Tyrant. As time passed, I’d occasionally gather up my paper citizens with tender hands, only to savagely tear them to pieces and toss them into the sea suspecting them of fomenting rebellion.
With a conch set to my blistered lips, I’d straddle their small universe, a vengeful colossus. I their creator, and Io! their unmaker as well. I’d sound the horn as the tide drew them towards the breakers and start rebuilding my invisible City out of the sand.
E. M. Edwards is a writer of odd things, who loves books to excess and has brought far too many of them to the not deserted isle of Gavdos
Among the titles he has traveled there with are The Tempest by William Shakespeare, The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, The Birds and Other Plays by Aristophanes, The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell, The Magus by John Fowles, and Caracol Beach by Eliseo Alberto.
Other suggestions for island reading as gleaned from Twitter:
The Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell); also (Tom) DeLillo's Underworld... The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)…
Moby Dick (Herman Melville), (Seamus) Heaney's Collected Poems, (William) Least-Heat Moon's Prairyerth, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism…
The Fall (Albert Camus), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake), (Franz) Kafka’s short stories, (Jorge Luis) Borges’ Collected Fiction, (William Butler) Yeats collected poems, (William) Shakespeare…
Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), Small Gods (Terry Pratchett) and Jingo (also Pratchett) - all Pratchett would have to be there…
Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell), Aegypt Sequence (John Crowley), Coelestis (Paul Park), Master Mariner (Nicholas Monsarrat) & Dhalgren (Samuel R. Delany)…
The Forgotten Beast of Eld by Patricia McKillip, By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey, and Taming the Forest King by Claudia J. Edwards…
The whole ASOIAF (George R. R. Martin) series for a start, American Gods (Neil Gaiman), Only Forward (Michael Marshall Smith), Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)…
The Harry Potter (and Lord of the Rings sagas, the collected works of the Brontes and Dickens. And the Oxford English Dictionary, to study. :) …
I, Claudius (Robert Graves). The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin). Gateway. High Rise (Frederik Pohl). The Illustrated Man (Ray Bradbury). Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)…
Many thanks, Eric! Commenters - please give Eric love for his article by suggesting YOUR Shipwrecked titles!