Desert Island reading list

Desert Island reading list

There’s the old question: what books would you want to have if you were trapped on a desert island? These days, social distancing and quarantines has created millions of desert islands – our homes – where we’re told to stay away from everyone else, lest the apocalypse arrive. So it’s the perfect time to read those books you haven’t had a chance to read, or perhaps re-read the books you love, to discover new meanings and insights, or to refamiliarize yourself with the characters and plotlines that you might have forgotten.

With that in mind, here’s a list of the books on my shelves that I’d like to revisit during this really surreal time, a desert island reading list, so to speak. When compiling the list, I realized there was a lot of things I didn’t remember from the books, even those I had recently read. I guess that’s why we keep books around.

The Odyssey
By Homer
Translated by Robert Fagles
Penguin Deluxe Edition, 1996

It’s all here. The eternal story of the journey, of finding your way home, and encountering obstacle after obstacle until you get there. And then, once arriving, realizing you have to do even more work to make things right (in this case, killing off a few suitors of Penelope). Odysseus, as shrewd a man you’ll ever meet, is on the winning side of the Trojan War, and is on his way home to Ithaca when he’s waylaid by a charming nymph, Calypso. The gods intervene, as they often do, and send him on the long voyage home. The Oydssey cuts to the heart of humanity, of putting aside the weapons of war to be back in the bed of your loved one, and how far you'd go to get there.

I first read the Odyssey in school, using one of those beat-up Penguin editions with really small type and smaller footnotes. The Fagles “deluxe” edition is fantastic – nice and big, immensely readable in clear, modern-day English. It’s a testament to the translation that the poetry of the original is retained, even if parts of it read like prose. It’s just the story, plain and simple, which is probably the way Homer would’ve wanted it.

Hamlet & King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Leland Publishing Company, 1950

In the late-1990s, I bought an 18-volume hardcover edition of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets at a garage sale for about $20. They’ve travelled with me ever since. Each volume pairs two of the Bard’s plays together, and the charming thing is, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason about it. Case in point: volume 3 contains Hamlet and King Lear, two plays written towards the end of Shakespeare’s career – shouldn’t they be closer to Volume 15? But perhaps this is mere quibbling. The reason I picked this volume was more because of King Lear than Hamlet, for the simple reason that it’s probably one of the best written works of the English language. Ever. It’s set in Britain, but the time is unclear – perhaps well before any real civilization had been set up, when the Celts were still running around. It’s a tale of an old king, who soon goes mad, who disowns his favourite daughter. And his other daughters plot against him. And a couple of other sons disown their father, Gloucester, who blinds himself in despair. As family goes, so goes the kingdom, and things fall apart in a very bad way. The main scenes, set on a rainy heath with a naked Lear running around the stage, bring us back to the primary instincts of man. It’s very bleak, but somehow in the midst of terror and despair, there is hope, and the characters on stage at the very end are the last of the good guys; the audience can only hope they find a way to build a better future.

Hamlet, the other play in this edition, honestly isn’t one of my favourites. Sure, it’s got those great soliloquies, but I’d rather read the brief bloodiness of Macbeth, the long path to reconciliation in The Winter’s Tale, or the verbal sparring of Much Ado About Nothing. Perhaps, after reading it again, I might appreciate it more.

There is one interesting link to our own time with these two plays. King Lear was written after a plague had killed about a fifth of London’s population; Hamlet was written after another plague, which killed Shakespeare’s son. The Bard himself lived through many plagues cropping up every now and then through the Elizabethan years, and I can see the bleakness, despair, and uncertainty of daily life leaking out into his tragedies.

Barney’s Version
By Mordecai Richler
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997

Not Richler’s best work – that’s Solomon Gursky Was Here – but my favourite of his. Barney Panofsky is a great character, blessedly politically incorrect, who abhors hypocritical and pretentious jerks. He’s got a heart of gold, is fiercely loyal to his friends, and is very protective of his family. He hates himself because he seems to be only good at making money, and is secretly envious of the artistic geniuses he befriends in Paris in the 1960s. But it’s no longer those halcyon years: the novel is written in the first-person towards the end of Barney’s life, as he lashes out at pretty much everything while stubbornly denying that dementia is eating away his brain and his memory. Yes, it’s a book about memory and the tricks it pulls, but the skill with which Richler shows the slow descent into oblivion is masterful. And, Richler being Richler, the prose jumps off the page in typically hilarious style.

Time Lord: The Remarkable Canadian Who Missed His Train, And Changed the World
By Clark Blaise
Vintage, 2000

In 1876, Sir Sandford Fleming missed a train in Ireland. This frequently happened to train passengers in those days, because there was no such thing as standardized time; instead, each train company “owned” the time of their train, and it was up to the passengers to translate the train company’s time for their journey. But Fleming, an accomplished civil engineer, decided to do something about it, and invented standard time, which we still use 144 years later. Through that one incident, Clark Blaise weaves a great tale of what it was like to live in the Victorian Age in Canada and Britain, and how one man’s frustration completely changed our perception of what time is and how it can be used. The best part of this narrative non-fiction is that it goes a bit beyond that, and explains how the arts and culture responded to this total change in perception; it’s also a great meditation on the nature of time itself, which goes back to Augustine in his Confessions, and even the Greek myths. What, exactly, is time? The journey to answer that question, through history and myth, through science and engineering, through art and culture, is one of the great joys of this book.

Man’s Search for Meaning
By Victor E. Frankl
Beacon Press, 2006

First published in 1959, Man’s Search for Meaning is the riveting and searing story of a Jewish psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp for a few years towards the end of the Second World War. He opens the book with the premise that it’s a book that answers this question: “how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” But, of course, it’s about much more than that. Mostly, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit when everything is hopeless and horrifying.

Through his tribulations, Frankl found that the only thing that nobody could take away from him – not even the Nazi guards – was his response to his environment. And, in so doing, he could discover meaning in suffering. And it is meaning, he argues, that makes humanity push forward. With this epiphany, he became a free man in one of the worst prisons ever devised, more free than even the guards themselves.

The book has sold millions of copies and has been reprinted many times. It’s a book you turn to for perspective: if this guy could hold these opinions in a concentration camp in the middle of WWII, then surely we all can be a bit kinder to each other. But it’s the insights and the small anecdotes that, I think, really make it last. The one that sticks out for me is the story of a fellow prisoner who was unshakeably sure that the Allies would arrive at the camp on a certain date and liberate everyone. As the date got closer, the man got more excited. He put all of his hopes into that day. But, the day came and went, and the Allies didn’t arrive; the man died shortly afterwards. Frankl concluded that the man died of a broken spirit, and if he had only controlled his response to his environment better, his spirit would have never been shattered.

Pale Fire
By Vladimir Nabokov
Vintage International, 1989

Ever read a book, and by the time you’ve finished the last word, you say, “what the hell was that?” Pale Fire is such a book. It starts with an introduction by Charles Kinbote, who says he’s a friend of world-famous poet John Shade. Kinbote has in his possession a manuscript of “Pale Fire,” a 999-line poem that was written in the last days of Shade’s life. Next, is the poem itself, written entirely in rhyming couplets, divided into four cantos. Finally, there’s the footnotes to the poem by Kinbote himself, and this is where the real story is set. We learn of the unreliable motives of Kinbote, who may or may not actually be who he says he is, and we’re taken around the world, and to the kingdom of Zembla, which might actually be entirely a construction of Kinbote’s mind. Confused? You should be, and to be honest, it’s not the most accessible book, but that's what makes it fun. First published in 1962, it’s really a puzzle, with language that fizzles on the page, and probably some of the best poetry of the 20th century. The book can be read poem first, then footnotes; or, perhaps flipping back and forth from the poem to the footnotes. Either way, though, both poem and footnotes meet in the final lines of each. In either case, the rabbit-hole you go down when you read it makes Wonderland look like a backwater Podunk.

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World
By Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 2001

The First World War is over, and now the victors meet in Paris to divide the spoils. The entire world showed up to the peace conference in 1919, and the decisions that were made in those six months by Woodrow Wilson (USA), David Lloyd George (UK) and Georges Clemenceau (France) continue to reverberate today. In the immediate aftermath, their decisions humiliated Germany, which led to the rise of rabid nationalism and, ultimately, Nazism, which was only stopped by the Second World War. The arbitrary way they divided the Middle-Eastern desert for the best oil routes has direct links to the US-led invasions of Kuwait, Iraq, and, in a way, Afghanistan. The creation of some of the Baltic States led to the wars in the mid-1990s in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. And Russia, which didn’t send a representative to the peace talks because it was embroiled in a revolution, eventually became Stalin’s hideous laboratory due, in part, because the victors of the Great War never really figured the country out.

A first-class historian and a fine writer, MacMillan steers the reader through this complicated conference with its varying interests, providing some great insights and anecdotes of the most powerful men in the world, as well as the mysterious T.E. Lawrence, and a Vietnamese kitchen hand who would one day be known as Ho Chi Minh. From the outset, MacMillan writes that the world had never see a conference like the one in 1919, and probably will never see one like it again. Maybe, given the results, that’s a good thing.

The Name of the Rose
By Umberto Eco
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1980

Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from the 14th century, wrote a memoir of sorts in the final years of his life. In it, he describes the events over a week when he was the “scribe and disciple” of Brother William of Baskerville, a well-read Franciscan monk who has a bunch of strange ideas and keeps name-dropping some mysterious guy named Aristotle. Adso and William visit an Abbey in northern Italy to attend a theological argument. But as the week goes on, dead bodies keep getting found, and Brother William turns into an investigator to try and solve the crimes. They keep hearing whisperings of a great labyrinth, a storehouse of the world’s knowledge, which might hold the key to the deaths. Part mystery, part historical narrative of the Dark Ages in Europe, and part meditation on the light of science that struggles to peek through the muck, The Name of the Rose is a long book, but a really fun book to read.

In his introduction, Eco claims he found Adso’s manuscript, and spent much of his time translating it for a reason he cannot quite fathom. But this just deepens the layers of mystery. Did the Abbey exist? If so, where? And did that massive labyrinth really hold all those tomes of knowledge? As Adso points out, some books are about things, but other books are about books. Indeed.


All Native By Rudy Kelly

The Outsider’s Guide to Prince Rupert, 2nd edition By Matt J. Simmons
Muskeg Press, 2019/2020

I am certainly not above shameless self-promotion when compiling a list like this.


The Landmark Herodotus
Edited by Robert B. Strassler, translated by Andrea L. Purvis
Pantheon Books, 2007

Herodotus, the father of history, ostensibly sets out to describe the causes of the war between Persia and the Greek States in the 5th century B.C. in his book, The Histories. But he goes off on so many damn tangents, to many different parts of the world, including Asia Minor, Egypt, Assyria and Media. If you’re just reading straight text, it’s very confusing. But that issue is solved by Strassler, who with his translator Purvis, put together this beautiful hardcover book that tips the scales at 962 pages (and probably about 3 pounds). The text is beautifully set, the maps are very useful and nice to look at, the footnotes are not distracting, and there are some photographs of antique items found in museums, as well as pictures of the present-day sites where Herodotus’ events take place. I’m only about 50 pages in, but now that I’ve got a bit of time on my hands…


Thanks for reading. Stay safe.

~Chris Armstrong