At the end of the 1960 film adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, the time traveller decides to return to the future one would imagine to remain. Seeing that he has left, his best friend David Filby and the housekeeper Mrs Watchett note that he had taken three books from the shelves in his drawing room. Filby wonders out loud: "Which three books would you have taken?" but we never get an answer. It's a variation on the Desert Island Discs scenario or the end of The Day After Tomorrow where they're burning books to keep warm and Jeremy ends up at the end of the film clinging to a Gutenberg Bible in the passenger cabin of a helicopter.
The quantities may vary but the question remains the same: If, for some strange reason, you find yourself on a spaceship leaving Earth and you're only being allowed to take three books, what would you take?
I could lump for The Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary. I wouldn't complain if that's what I was forced to take. That's what Billy Connolly opted for and if it's good enough for the Big Yin then it's good enough for me.
Actually when you look at it, they're not really three books. The Bible consists of a minimum of sixty-six books (Roman Catholics get an extra baker's-dozen), the general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays not counting his other works and there are twenty volumes to the complete Oxford English Dictionary.
I've never actually read the whole Bible – chunks of it, yes – but I'd hate if was landed with The King James or The Douay version. I could tolerate a modern translation, perhaps The Good News version or the Jerusalem Bible, at least then the verses would be less familiar to me.
I've seen all the key Shakespeare plays bar Othello for some reason – thank you BBC – but there are a few of the minor ones that have got by me and most of the histories I have to confess. But even the ones I know well are so dense that I could read them for years on end. Besides we could put on little plays in the mess hall to entertain the crew.
And, those of you who have been with me from the start of this blog will be well aware of my fondness for dictionaries. You can find a list of those I currently own here. I could easily sit and read a dictionary like a book. I have done. Many times. There's actually something quite relaxing about words just on their own, no context to muck them up or get in the road.
To my mind, where these three books win out is their size; you get an awful lot of information and, from a writer's perspective, they're great reference material.
But, that's if three books were foisted upon me. What if I could choose three myself? This is not about picking my three favourite books. That would be a task and a half in itself. What I'm looking for here are books that could be read and reread and enjoyed over an extended period of time. And I'm going to use the same logic Connolly did.
My first choice would be Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. The copy I had as a kid is long gone and I've bitterly regretted not sticking the ten volumes in the back of the van when we were clearing out my mum's house but there you go. A few years later my wife was passing a second-hand shop when she noticed a set in the window and, the dear that she is, she lugged the whole lot home on the bus. It's sitting in a glass bookcase in front of me as I write this and, although I hardly ever open it, there's a great sense of comfort having the books there.
The books are so out-of-date that it's not true but I spent hours upon hours pawing through them when I was young. They are pure, concentrated nostalgia. They present a world that was falling to pieces even as I was being born. The sections on 'Things to Make and Do' would be invaluable for the children that would be born on the trip. With limited resources they'd need to be able to make something out of next-to-nothing and that's the kind of thing the book contains.
My next choice would be (no big surprises here) the complete works of Samuel Beckett, the four-volume Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition. These are texts you could spend a lifetime on. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know how much I've been affected by this guy. Nuff said.
My last book – again I'm cheating – would be Rene Magritte: Catalogue Raisonne, a five volume work presenting an authoritative survey of the artist's œuvre. I saw a copy once in the Mitchell Library and never realised the man had produced so much art. I never tire of looking at Magritte's work. I make no claims to understanding it and I've never worried particularly why I like it. Technically he's quite basic which I don't mind. I think I'm more interested in the image than the art. He also presents simple pictures, just two or three items – a chair, a tuba and a torso or something like that – and leaves the rest to you.
For a guy whose own work revolves around reason you might find this an interesting choice but there's meaning to be found in everything and where's there's none we make something up. That's what we do, we make things make sense. I love that about people. It's why I chose the inkblot as my logo, it symbolises everything I write about. It could have been a star system that looks like a crab or a fluffy cloud that looks like … well, with Magritte the fluffy cloud looks exactly like what he wants it to. There's something about that that quite delights me.
So, there are my choices. No doubt others among you will have a few of your own.
Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense