I mentioned the Kalevala was one of my Desert Island books last week. It is. The Desert Island list is what it sounds like—if you were stranded on a remote island somewhere away from the honking of traffic, the onslaught of internet information, and could only carry ten books, what would they be?
It’s worth thinking about, and, I think, revisiting at various points in your life. It’s a good way to check in and see what’s changed in terms of values and passions, and to see if you’ve discovered some new treasure since you last thought about it.
So if I were stranded on an island in 2018, the books whose words I would feel lost if I could not read again are as follows, and you should know ahead of time that I intend to cheat:
A Collected Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. (See what I did there?) I don’t think I could live too long without access to the Canterbury Tales, but he has other lovely works, like the Legend of Good Women and the House of Fame that I would want those too, if we’re talking about forever.
Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is also a frame narrative, or a story full of stories, and it’s the kind of book I’d reread once a year even if I didn’t teach it. It’s all about reading and writing and reading like a writer and writing like a reader, and I love it. There is a character who talks about translating like flow—moving in and out of languages like a fish swimming—and it has never left me.
Franz Xaver von Schonberg’s Collected Folk Tales. I used to say the Grimms,’ and I still love them, but if we’re only granted a limited number of books and they might be used to build a new civilization, I’d want the ones with more neutral gender roles, so we don’t have to relive all that damsel in distress nonsense.
The Arabian Nights. I get lots of stories here too, and since I know less about this area and language, I’d defer to the translation by Husain Hadawy, my first year composition instructor from the University of Nevada, so many moons ago.
The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh folklore and legends with some marvelous characters and scenes, like Caumniated Wives and Wizards who use transfiguration as a punishment.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoesvsky because we probably should have a traditional sort of novel, and Grushenka’s onion was instrumental in my forming healthy adult relationships.
Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson because we probably should have an American, and Dickinson’s poems craft images as if out of clouds.
A World Mythology collection because it’s good to know where we came from and how much we have in common.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I favor Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. But let’s face it, if I were on an island, I’d have lots of time to work up my Latin, so I should have a dual-language edition. I love so many of these stories so deeply, but the stories of Proserpina and Orpheus alone would merit its inclusion—Proserpina/Persephone so we remember that death and life are inseparable, and Orpheus so that we remember that while art can do almost everything, it cannot bring back the dead—nor do we mortals need it to.
And last, but not least, The Kalevala, because of all the reasons I mentioned last week and because it’s good to remember that words are magic and can change your world.
This is where I am now. If I were honest, I’d say I need ten picture books, ten children’s novels, ten poets, ten novels, ten essayists, and ten non-fiction, but this is where my mind lives most often at this stage in my career and life, and it is a happy place. A folkloric, mythic, medieval wonderland with only occasional forays in to the modern world, and usually by those who value the past.
Of all the personality inventories and internet quizzes that crank out a conclusion about us based on what we like, I think which stories we could not live without is probably the most accurate, at least for me. I need magic. I think in archetypes. I revel in beautiful words and compelling images. And I view story as the most valuable thread back to our collective past and in to our individual selves.