At the beginning of the season, I struggled to think of a fun question to ask the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle authors that I’d get to interview.
As a big reader, I finally decided that I wanted to know what authors read — or, more accurately, what they’d read in the direst circumstances.
So, at the end of each interview, I asked the authors what one book they would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island.
The answers were fascinating. Books can tell a lot about a person, and so does being stranded on a hypothetical desert island. Some picked an old favorite and some picked something heady.
One didn’t choose at all.
What I came away with is a pretty hefty list of literature — perfect reading for the off-season. Here’s what the authors had to say:
“The phonebook,” Rosenblatt said.
He quickly took it back as a joke.
“I guess if I had to just read and reread and reread, it would be Don Quixote,” he said. “I love the idea of the fellow who is resigned to knowing that reality is going to beat him, but nonetheless his imagination prevails.”
John Colman Wood, author The Names of Things
“Part of me thinks it’d be some sort of spiritual book; something that’s meaty and reflective,” Wood said. “Something like the Dao De Jing. The more likely answer is a favorite novel of mine: The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. I’ve reread that book a number of times, and I think it’s the story of a life. And if I were to be alone on a desert island, I’d want to be reminded of what human life was like. And Saul Bellow was such a great writer: you can go back to him and read and reread him.”
“Good question — a question that would really depend on what day I was marooned,” Wakling said. “Right now, what would I bring? Moby Dick. I think you can read and reread and reread that one.”
Frank X Walker, author When Winter Come: The Ascension of York
After some deliberation, Walker made his decision.
“I read for pleasure, and I don’t know anything about pleasure reading while trapped on a desert island,” Walker said. “I’d be trying to get off of it. Something practical that would teach me how to build a boat or get off the island. If it was just for pleasure, it’d be the collection of Sherlock Holmes. That’s good reading.”
Fink answered with no hesitation.
“War and Peace, because it’s long and it’s really good,” she said.
Chang-rae Lee, author On Such a Full Sea
He laughed about Rosenblatt saying he would bring the phonebook.
“I wouldn’t bring the phonebook,” Lee said. “It would really have to be a book that you could read — this is sort of an unfair answer, but I probably would say my Riverside Edition of Shakespeare, which has every play that Shakespeare’s written. I think that would be great because I would rather bring drama rather than one novel. With drama you can sort of hear it differently and imagine it differently, and of course Shakespeare talks about everything under the sun. And it’s so wise.”
“My true love among books is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams,” Winter said. “It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it is the one that makes me laugh the hardest, no matter how many times I read it.”
Winter said he wanted something enjoyable, not pensive.
“If I’m gonna be on a desert island, I’m gonna need some entertainment,” he said. “I can get the reflection elsewhere.”
Danielle Allen, author Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
After some deliberation, Allen made her choice.
“Well, I think the honest answer would be that I would bring the Bible, because I haven’t read it closely enough in a long time,” Allen said.
E.L. Doctorow, author Andrew’s Brain
He hesitated for a second.
“I wouldn’t be on a desert island,” Doctorow said. “Are we through now?”