Back in 2000, inspired by the new millennium, poet W.S. Merwin received a request to respond to a “What if?” scenario. “What if” a nuclear Trident submarine were at sea, commanded by men who could, with the push of a button, set off a chain of destruction that could lead to the end of humanity? What books, Merwin was asked, would you want these men to read so that while sitting in front of the doomsday button they would “ponder the immeasurable value of any life with sensitivity, responsibility, humility, and an open mind.”
To be more specific, Merwin was asked what five books would you want these seamen and officers to have on board to read and to ponder? As anyone’s five books would be, Merwin’s choices, of course, were idiosyncratic and rather surprising, and, I confess, a couple were a little hard for me to see his rationale. His five were: Chekhov’s Short Stories; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; The Essays of E.B. White; Lewis Thomas’ Late Night Thoughts On Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony; and Kierkegaard’s Purity of the Heart is to Will One Thing.
Merwin also added five poems to the undersea library, so I will try to match that as well. As for the five books I would offer:
First, The Perennial Philosophy, an anthology of mystics, East and West, compiled and discussed by Aldous Huxley. Huxley has amassed a collection of wisdom, joy, and beauty that could keep anyone occupied for a lifetime pondering the meaning and miracles of life. No one contemplating such, I believe, could countenance pushing the button.
So with Thoreau’s Walden.
So, too, with my third selection, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which takes the reader so deeply into the complexities and mysteries of the human personality that erasing such consciousness from perhaps the entire cosmos, should be unthinkable.
The fourth book would be just about any play of Shakespeare wherein the magnificence of language demonstrates the human sensibility at its finest and in itself demands perpetuation for posterity.
Finally, I would place on the survivalists’ shelf a superb history of how humanity has evolved and, therefore, why it warrants continuance. Here any number of world histories would do, but perhaps E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World would suffice. It is a superb condensation of human achievement, folly, and is a dramatic presentation of the sweep of the human drama.
As for the five poems, Merwin recommends:
1. William Stafford, “Earth Dweller”
2. Stanley Kunitz, “Touch Me”
3. Gerald Stern, “The Dog”
4. Hans Magnus Enzenberger, “The End of the Owls”
5. Emily Dickinson, “I Reason, Earth is Short”
A great list. No quarrels at all.
My five would be as follows:
1. Pattiann Rogers, “The Hummingbird: A Seduction:”
“And I would take you and take you and take you
Deep into any kind of nest you ever wanted.”
2. Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill:”
“Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
3. Robert Frost, “Birches:”
“Earth’s the right place for love
I don’t know when it’s likely to go better.”
4. W.B. Yeats, “A Prayer for my Daughter:”
“How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading Laurel tree.”
5. Robert Penn Warren, “New Dawn” (a poem about the bombing of Hiroshima):
“Some men, no doubt, will, before sleep, consider
One thought: I am alone. But some,
In the mercy of God, or booze, do not
Long stare at the dark ceiling.”
Which five books and which five poems would you want placed in the submarine’s library?