Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The last three books

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.


Dave King said...

I guess I would take The Norton Anthology of Poetry, A World History of Art (Hugh Honour and John Fleming) and then it would be a toss-up whether to take a Complete Shakespeare or The Bible. I probably would, actually toss for it.)

Anonymous said...

(Ken is forced to choose between 'Works of Shakespeare and The Bible):

Toss a coin... right (flip), okay... 'best of three?

I can't do this - those books you guys picked are enormous so there's lots of reading/learning/exploration to be done in 'em - but would I really be diverted by them?

I think I'd find three of the biggest novels I could find, which I haven't read yet and bring them along, making them last as long as I could.

Maybe John Irving will produce a new one before we set off - his last one kept me going for an entire week-on-hols.

Marion McCready said...

I've also kept a couple of ancient childrens encyclopedias from when I was a kid, I love flicking through them - makes you really realise what a different world we live in now.
My choice would also the bible, the complete Anna Akhmatova and the collected Sylvia Plath.

Unknown said...

My first choice has to be the Reader's Digest Wordpower Dictionary. I simply can't operate without it. Flick through the pages to find the little red squares filled with little-known facts about words. And when you've time to spare, turn to the end pages for the Guide to Good English and various other encyclopaedic info.

Then I think I could read Middlemarch over and over. Plus The Miracle of the Bells written by Russell Janney in 1946.


You have given me something to think about. I know that I would require the Bible as a source of comfort, but to choose 2 more from all...I honestly don't know.

Tina-Sue said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Hmmm...three books I'd take with me:

Sophie's Choice
Book of The Law
Alice in Wonderland

Anonymous said...

Excellent, very thought provoking post. . .
Jakill, I work for Reader's Digest in NY. . . so thank you for that selection.

I'd love to have compiled something like: "The Reverse Slang Thesaurus of Modern Qutations and Allegories" to take along.

I am waiting for someone to write: "The Seven Pathways to a Better Understanding of the 52 Million Things you Must Rememeber in Order to Survice a Whole Damn Day." So I could bring that one.

And I think that Richard Russo's "Straight Man" might be my third.

Art Durkee said...

I make these genre of choices every time I go out on an extensive road trip. I am fond of the Shambhala Pocket Editions and Centaur Editions line of books, because they're designed to be back-pack or pocket size.

I almost always take along, wherever I go, Basho's "Narrow Road to the Interior" (trans. Sam Hamill).

I almost always take along Rilke's "Selected Poems" (trans. Stephen Mitchell).

I almost always take along Thomas Merton's "The Wisdom of the Desert."

I would probably take along a Gary Snyder collected or selected writings book, too.

For me, the Bible does not contain the essential texts. These are of course the root and foundation texts of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. But I could just as easily have chosen the Buddhist Pail canon, or the Upanishads. They all mean about the same to me.

And to be honest, I don't need to re-read Shakespeare or the Bible over and over again, as they're pretty much in my head already. You can't escape them, not that you'd want to, so it seems kinda redundant.

The essential texts for me are the later poetic texts, that comment on the foundation texts. I'd rather have the Talmud, and some of the Zen masters' texts. Sam Hamill and J.P Seaton co-edited and co-translated a lovely book called "The Poetry of Zen." I have a whole shelf of similar texts I'd find it hard to chose between.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, a man after my own heart, stretch a meaning to its limit. I thought about going for individual books but where would you start? The practical side of me would want to get together with everyone else on the ship and say, "Hey, what're you bringing?" I mean, if everyone brought a bible then, well, that would be a lot of bibles let's just say.

Ken, three fat novels, eh? I suppose it doesn't need to be novels. Alan Bennett's Untold Stories is pretty thick. I don't see The Lord of the Rings on anyone's list so far. I guess the films wore them all out.

Sorlil, two books of poetry! I guess I could live with Philip Larkin's Collected Poems but if I only had three books to choose from I'm not sure I'd waste one on any one poet. I'd rather do as Dave suggests and pick an anthology.

Jakill, a dictionary! Damn it, I have so many of them that I should've at least considered the OED.

Susan, come on, you've got ten minutes before the car comes to take you to the spaceport never to see Earth again – what would you grab out of your bookcase?

Tina-Sue, I had never heard of The Book of the Law - it sounds fascinating.

Koe, I love your second choice. It's a pity Erma Bombeck is no longer with us. I'm sure she would've been up for a crack at that one.

And, Art, yeah, I knew you'd have more than a problem than most with this one. I think you need to have a word with one or two of the other passengers. Perhaps you could persuade Sorlil to give up one of her books of poetry in favour of the Bashō or the Rilke.

Anonymous said...

I think this is one of the hardest questions *ever* for me to answer -- I have so many favorite books.

I have moved a lot throughout my life, so I can tell you the books I never go anywhere without:

"Dragonriders of Pern" by Anne McCaffrey.

All the Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

I've read them all about a thousand times, and I'll read them a thousand more.

I realize my choices might put me on the bottom of the intellectual list, but you asked and I honestly answered.

Great question, but can I just stay here with ALL my books?


Conda Douglas said...

This post reminded me of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, where people save books by memorizing them. Which brings up an interesting question: if you had to choose, which book would you memorize?

Anonymous said...

I'm with you for the Arthur Mee and the Beckett, Jim. I might chuck my Eagle Annuals in as well. I'm stopping there or the flood gates will open...

Jim Murdoch said...

Netta, this looks like out first science fiction and fantasy books. Interesting, I'm not sure any science fiction I've read would have enough meat to last me for a thousand reads. I think the most I've ever read any science fiction book has been three times. And I'm afraid I've never read anything you could call fantasy.

Conda, that is a very interesting question. Considering how many problems I've had with my memory of late I'd pick the three thinnest I could think of. I'd probably go for a Brautigan, an Elizabeth Smart and one of Larkin's books of poems (not the Collected Poems).

And, Dick, comics! Where would I start? Actually it would probably have to be The Dark Knight Returns. I'm desperate to see the new Watchmen film when it comes out – the trailer is right there on the money – but Frank Miller vision of a future Batman was simply something else. As a backup I might opt for Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. I was still collecting at the time and I could hardly wait for each new issue.

Art Durkee said...


Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: "Signal to Noise"

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: "Watchmen"

Frank Miller: "Ronin"

also: Hugo Pratt's "Corto Maltese" series

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, I'd never heard of Corto Maltese I have to say. I got this from Wikipedia:

"Corto Maltese" appears in Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as the name of an island at the centre of an incident not unlike the Cuban missile crisis. The choice of name is apparently an inside joke as Miller has stated he is a great admirer of Pratt's work. Miller also dedicated the Sin City one-shot 'Silent Night' to the memory of Pratt, who died a few months prior.

That does pique my interest but the subject matter doesn't really appeal. Still, I'd watch out for a copy just to see.

Art Durkee said...

I knew about Miller's homages to Pratt, and the in jokes. Beyond that, though, don't change Pratt by Miller, their art and subjects are quite different. The Corto Maltese books are terrific adventures.

Here's a link or two for anyone interested:

Ping services