Home > Books > Ten Reasons Why “Ten Books on a Desert Island” Lists Suck

Ten Reasons Why “Ten Books on a Desert Island” Lists Suck

You know the scenario.  You get ten books to bring to a desert island.  The description most of us are familiar with comes from Adler and Van Doren’s classic book, How to Read a Book.  It goes like this:

 There is an old test – it was quite popular a generation ago – that was designed to tell you which books are the ones that [will help you to grow].  Suppose, the test went, that you know in advance that you will be marooned on a desert island for the rest of your life, or at least for a long period.  Suppose, too, that you have time to prepare for the experience.  There are certain practical and useful articles that you would be sure to take with you.  You will also be allowed ten books.  Which ones would you select?

 I love the idea.  It is supposed to get you to learn something about yourself.  The idea is that you will find out which books are really important to you.  So I have thought about this question a lot.  I have tried several times to make a list.  But I always get bogged down before I complete it.  The problem, I have concluded, is not that I am indecisive, but that the scenario is flawed.  Here are ten reasons why:

  1. A real list would be composed entirely of desert survival books or books on how to get off a desert island.  But that defeats the whole purpose of the exercise, which is supposed to reveal something about your personality.  G.K. Chesterton is the first one I know of to answer the question this way, which does reveal something about his personality: he was witty.  But the point is to provide a list that says something about you, not to get bogged down by the scenario itself.
  2. The fact that you are alone rules out a whole group of books that would become useless.  Take for instance David McKenna’s list in his (mediocre) book, How to Read a Christian Book.  Among his choices is The Incendiary Fellowship by Elton Trueblood.  He writes, “As a cure for the tendency toward introspection that comes with isolation, Trueblood will not let us forget that we are members of the body of Christ with a fiery passion for the salvation of the world.”  Yet I can’t help but think what a completely useless book this would be on a desert island.  There would be no one to fellowship with and no one else to save.  Perhaps it answers the heart of the question of which books he finds most stimulating, but I could never add a book like this to the list without feeling like a poser.  What good is a book about how to interact with other people if you’re probably never going to again, at least for a very long time?
  3. I would want to read books I haven’t already read.  The first time I tried to make a desert island list, I added a complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays.  I haven’t read a Shakespeare play since college.  I don’t have time or desire to read Shakespeare, but I would have both time and desire to read him on a desert island.  I realized that this kind of choice says more about the scenario than it does about one’s reading preferences.
  4. I would want to read books that I wouldn’t ordinarily want to read.  In one episode of Lost, Sawyer is reading a copy of an Ayn Rand book.  In real life I will almost certainly never read an Ayn Rand book, but I may very well want to read it on a desert island.  After all, what else is there to do?  I would want books that would get my mind off of the fact that I was stranded on a desert island.  I would probably not want books that get me to think about the meaning of life, though these are the very kinds of books I like to read in real life.
  5. I would choose books that contain information I would not otherwise have access to on a desert island.  I may very well choose the excellent IVP Dictionary of the New Testament.  But this book is merely a compilation of their other four New Testament dictionaries.  In real life, I would want to use those four.  (Actually I only have two of the four, but I would normally read the articles in those volumes instead of the IVDNT volume.  And in fact, I don’t use those volumes all that much anyway.  But would want to have access to the information on a desert island.  I would want it enough to use at least one of my book selections to bring it.  But again, it seems like this misses the spirit of the exercise.
  6. I might very well just want to bring along an encyclopedia set.  We have an old set that we picked up when the public library updated theirs.  It has 22 volumes.  I probably would get as much enjoyment out of ten of those volumes as anything else.  I might prefer to find a encyclopedia set that is only ten volumes, if such a set exists.  That way I wouldn’t have to pick and choose which letters to bring.  So far this pick probably says the most about my personality, though I still get the sense I have missed the point.
  7. The encyclopedia idea also helps to highlight the absurdity of setting the number arbitrarily at ten.  I want to get volumes that have as many pages as possible, as much information crammed into them as I can.  Now in normal life, I don’t care if I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in three volumes or in a single volume.  But in for the desert island list, this becomes crucially important.  Of course I’ve never taken the time to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but on that see point four above.
  8. There actually is no eighth point.  I just wanted to illustrate point 7 by showing how absurd it is when you are arbitrarily forced to have a list of ten.
  9. David McKenna expands the scenario by saying, “You are given the privilege of taking your Bible and ten books with you.”  He is trying to avoid the ‘religious’ answer that most Christians will feel obligated to give if the Bible is not taken for granted.  But that says something in and of itself to me.  McKenna’s version does take the Bible for granted.  If there’s one book I know belongs on my list, it’s the Bible.  That’s not because it’s the religious thing to say.  It’s because it’s the one book that I know I would want.  I feel almost cheated when it’s taken away from me as an answer.
  10. I can’t even come up with a different way to phrase the question so as to have it make more sense.  If I chose ten books that define me (for instance), these may be books I am not likely to read again, since I’ve already gotten what I want out of them.  If I change it to a list of ten books I would like to read over and over, I suppose this gets more to the heart of it.  But I really don’t read books that I want to read over and over.  I like to read books, make notes in them, make sure I understand the argument, and make sure I can reference them in the future when I need to.  The desert island list seems totally foreign in that respect.

What do you think?  Is it a dumb idea altogether?  Have you made a list, and if so, did you encounter the same kinds of frustrations that I did?

Categories: Books
  1. November 23, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


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