The infamous question rings again. Well, kind of. I’ve been asking folks lately what their desert island books or authors might be. You know the scenario: a violent storm or other unexpected catastrophe leaves you stranded on a desert island inexplicably (in most cases) with a few of your favorite things. Certainly it’s one of those well, how can I be sure answers, an ace up the interviewer’s sleeve, a worn and obvious card. But what if we turn the stock-standard question into something fresh, so as they do in the fashion industry, we put the trend in reverse? So I ask instead: what are the absolute worst desert island books?
First, The Complete Works of Shakespeare:
We all know Shakespeare’s language. He gave us a pageantry of words, metaphors and similes that have marked the English imagination for all time. His lyricism enchants us; it’s melody easily stamps the mind. And yet, Shakespeare’s greatest achievement is his insight into the human character. The characters that populate Shakespeare are people of many motivating layers. Their monologues present reasons that are hardly predictable, hardly rational and ear-marked at every turn of events with distraction. Even when Shakespeare is transparent to the audience, as he often is, his characters are swept into an undertow of themselves. Their motivations lead them like carrots while they continually argue with themselves over the wherefore by which they are led. Samples are easily found, to name a few: Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II, The Tempest, King Henry IV, Parts I & II.
Shakespeare’s characters have deepened my understanding of those around me and, at the same time, made me more comfortable with my bewilderment at human nature. Shakespeare makes personalities his landscapes on the spare Elizabethan stage. His works are a tribute to the very architecture of the psychology of people in all their diversity and shallowness, to their generosities and their innocence: it is a painful reminder of exactly what one has lost, should they find themselves stranded on, say, a desert island.
Second, the novels of Henry Miller:
Like Shakespeare, the works of Henry Miller are about characters. Sometimes that character is simply Henry Miller himself, but more frequently his novels have a healthy cast of unending and utterly unique personalities. I think most often of Tropic of Capricorn, The Black Spring, Tropic of Cancer, Quiet Days in Cliché, The Colossus of Maroussi and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch; these are books that, consequently and, perhaps a little personally, I read as a single series marking the passage of Henry Miller from an inwardly focused to an outwardly focused person.
Miller isn’t for everyone. That has frequently been noted. The author of the now very antiquated Twayne’s Author Series volume on Henry Miller seems annoyed to write on the subject. Time, however, has won Miller a vast following. I have no doubt that there are those who read Miller for the historically taboo thrill of reading banned literature. Others, though, who have the patience to come to several of his books, will find an author whose character deepens through the years. His friendships, often with reoccurring characters, comprise a large portion of his writing. His relationships are constantly in flux between finding understanding and that understanding falling apart.
Reading Henry Miller is something like talking to a stranger on the subway for a very long time, a trip long enough in fact, that he tells you his whole life. Sound like companionship? I’m not so sure, because again, I’m by myself on that desert island and reading Miller’s life, I feel, would over time seem like a bad Twilight Zone episode. It’d feel like looking into a living diorama of the vast and diverse world of humans and their prosaic cultures, but unable to live there.
Third, the poetry of Frank O'Hara:
O'Hara is a well-known and beloved poet of the New York School. He had an agile and full mind. Looking back over his works I feel like he was a prototype for Wikipedian knowledge. A knowledge, if you will, that sprawls into every crack. His encyclopedic awareness of artists, writers, commercial products and city life seems unending. So many of his poems contain a “see also” option. They redirect you. O'Hara sends our minds out into the worlds of culture over and over again. He is constantly encouraging us to engage with the wide world of people, to delve deeper into history and, at the same time, to embrace something fresh, something so new that it is new to us on this very day.
O'Hara’s poetry is, in of itself, a vast metropolis. There is no walking through the forest, no trip to Grecian seaside; his forest is one of piping, concrete and glass windows and his seaside is the deepening histories and ways of humankind. The poetry of O'Hara is like a Wallpaper guide to New York, and Tokyo, London, Detroit and Cape Town as well. It is anywhere people are swarming and bustling. It is about a deep and always proliferating world of doings, meetings, buildings, appreciations and endeavors. If one were to compile photographs that represented his poetry, they’d put together a scrapbook of friends enjoying one another’s company in a busy restaurant, faces passing in a city buys, children buddied-up and holding hands as their teacher leads them to the zoo and the halls of art museums; and what is the opposite of all that? A solitary desert island, of course.
Fourth and finally, the paintings, drawings and other collected works of Egon Schiele:
Schiele’s works on the human form are a veritable tribute to the sensuous. His work has frequently been imitated, sometimes loathed and other times idolized, but never since his time forgotten. Schiele doesn’t give us the body as defined by a drawing compass. Rather, his bodies are imperfect: sometimes they are too thin, or huddled awkwardly clutching their knees, or their complexions seem blotchy, their bones uncomfortably pronounced. They are, in short, blemished.
Schiele was one, like Rodin, who knew beauty was in every form and that, if this appears to be false, it is not the form which fails, but the eyes that view it. In other words, every body is beautiful and stands as a nexus to the world of the sensual. His work reminds us that the beauty of a person is not always just in the smooth, unbroken and voluptuous line, but rather more often it is in the attitude of a person or, better yet, the way in which their soul, their personal pomp, their coyness and forwardness resides in their bodies. Even the knees of his figures seem to blush; all of this sumptuous stuff I would want to forget if I were stranded on a desert island.
So, what should you put in your survival kit’s book storage?
I’ve got some ideas, but they are harder to define. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is certainly in the list with its litany of the individualistic self. The Works of Seneca, John Webster and St. John-Perse are all possibilities. Most certainly the literary works of Djuna Barnes, whose biting wit is often a comfort to me in my darker days. The poetry of Cesar Vallejo with its penetrating and mystical loneliness. A book of Casper David Friedrich’s nature studies would be most welcome too.
They would have to be works that offer bread to the lonely and fortify the sense of a strong and solitary mind. Works like that are hard to swallow sometimes, but a desert island climate would be the perfect spot to engage them and engage them and engage them again.
-Christopher J. Johnson