A popular question asked by interviewers, particularly of celebrities, is what book they would like to have with them if they found themselves stranded on a desert island. “A desert island, or uninhabited island,” according to Wikipedia, “is an island, islet or atoll that is not permanently populated by humans.” Being quarantined, one may argue, is much like being on a desert island.
What book would you take to a desert island? Assume that it is the only book you will ever have until the day you stop breathing. Some people and I can imagine Harold Bloom among them, would answer, unequivocally, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. That is an appealing answer. With Shakespeare, you would have, undoubtedly, some of the world’s greatest plays, comedies and tragedies. And you would also have a stellar collection of poetry. In his book, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages [Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994], Bloom goes so far as to say that “Shakespeare is the Western Canon.” (p. 75).
I understand. How many times, for example, when I’ve felt oh so sorry for myself, have I found sweet consolation in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29?
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least—
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at Heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Here is a reading of Shakespeare’s sonnet by Matthew Macfadyen that illustrates, so it seems to me, the sonnet’s universal appeal, across time and place.
There is something, almost divine one is tempted to say, in the works of Shakespeare.
My choice book for a desert island is the Bible – Tanakh in Hebrew. Some may accuse me of cheating in my choice, for the Bible is not only one book; it is a collection of books. It consists of three volumes: The Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and The Writings. In my choice, I am bringing with me, in effect, a library. In my defense, however, I would point out that I can purchase the three volumes bound together as a single book.
In the Bible, I have the music of the Psalms, wisdom in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. I have fascinating stories, Joseph and his brothers, Ruth, and Esther, for example. There are history collections and fiery words of passionate prophets. There is also something in the Bible that I would find tough, if not impossible, to live without—poetry. Poetry is scattered throughout the Bible. But one book, The Song of Songs, is entirely poetry. Of it, Robert Alter writes:
The delicate yet frank sensuality of this celebration of young love, without reference to God or covenant or Torah, has lost nothing of its immediate freshness over the centuries: these are among the most beautiful love poems that have come down to us from the whole ancient world.Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Let me share with you just two small examples taken from Alter’s translation of The Song of Songs.
In the first one, the beloved is speaking of her lover, whom she refers to as “the king.” Nard is an exotic aromatic oil derived from a flowering plant in the Himalayas.
While the king was on his couchStrong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs 1:12-14, translated by Robert Alter.
my nard gave off its scent.
A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,
all night between my breasts.
A cluster of henna, my lover to me,
in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.
In the second one, from chapter 2, the lover is speaking to his beloved.
Arise my friend, my fair one, go.
For, look, the winter has passed
the rain has gone away.
Buds can be seen in the land,Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, 2:10-13, translated by Robert Alter.
the nightingale’s season has come
and the turtledove’s voice is heard
in our land.
The fig tree has put forth its green fruit
and the vines in blossom waft fragrance.
Arise and go, my friend,
my fair one, go forth.
Well, the Bible is my choice. What would be yours? If you had only one book to read for the rest of your life, what would it be? Choose wisely! If you feel like it, tell me about your choice in a comment.
May you and all those whom you love be safe, happy, and healthy.
P.S. If I could have one or two more choices, they would be, in order, a good English language dictionary and the Boy Scouts of America, Handbook for Boys.
If memory serves, the UK radio programme Desert island Discs allows the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and one other book (because so many people would otherwise, certainly in the days the radio show began) choose one of the first two as their only book. It’s a very difficult choice, perhaps the collected poetry of Margaret Attwood? She’s better known as a novelist of course, but her poetry is amazing,
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Atwood’s poetry would be an excellent choice.
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