When interviewing prospective teachers, I often asked the desert island question: “If you were given an all-expense-paid six-month vacation on a beautiful desert island and could take only five or 10 (or whatever number) novels or books of history with you, which books would you choose?” Some candidates were flustered and unable to adequately respond. I remember asking one history prospect which three historians he would take with him. He responded, “Herodotus, Toynbee and Churchill.” Then he telephoned me at home five hours later, and no sooner had I picked up the phone than he blurted out, “No, not Herodotus, I would take Thuycidides because…” I knew I had the right guy. This man had obviously been chewing on the question all afternoon. He cared. And, by the way, he was a passionate, effective teacher who inspired many, many students.
So the question format is a good one. Which three novels would you, dear reader, take with you to your desert island? Or, to make the question even more relevant, which three do you plan to read this summer? If you haven’t decided, then let me offer a few summer reading suggestions.
First, read or re-read a Dickens novel. There are few writers since this master who can create such a complete world where characterization, story and setting blend in such detail and atmosphere. Bleak House, David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, or just about any other novel will do. Swamped as we are with film, TV and Internet entertainment, it is easy to forget the treasures lying await in Dickens.
Second, venture into the labyrinthine world of Kafka’s The Trial, for example, which captures the essence of the 20th-century individual who feels at the complete mercy of an unfathomable state bureaucracy that finds him guilty of a crime the nature of which he cannot discover. After reading the book, Orson Welles’ film is a great follow-up, but not a substitute for the book.
Third, read or re-read some vintage Faulkner, perhaps his novella Spotted Horses, which is one of my favorites.
Finally, in memory of a zany and wonderful American writer who died recently, read a Kurt Vonnegut novel; my two favorites are Cats Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five.
So these are a few recommendations. They are not radical ones, but ones which come with a guarantee of delight and engagement: Dickens, Kafka, Faulkner and Vonnegut, a quartet of brilliant entertainers, educators and radically different stylists. A summer’s delight.