Arts Editor’s Note: What follows, happily, is the debut of a new column about reading and books, “The Desert Island Bookworm,” by islander Phil Clapham.
Years ago, I ran a summer science internship program. We’d typically receive more than a hundred applications for a few slots, and after weeding out the obviously clueless candidates I’d set about interviewing the remainder.
In addition to the standard questions about strengths and weaknesses, I’d always ask this: If you were on a sinking ship and could take three books to a nearby desert island, what would they be? The answers told me more about that person than anything else, and today I still pose the question to friends, or to interesting people I meet (though after numerous complaints, “three” has become “a handful”).
The internship applicants would sometimes try to impress me with calculated choices. Very earnest young men (it was always men) would sometimes say they’d take a biology textbook (jeez, lighten up!) Others would be rather less discriminating. I recall one young woman who, given the choice of all the world’s literature, said she’d take Cosmopolitan magazine (she didn’t get the job for other reasons, but that answer certainly didn’t improve her prospects). Some would name a book they’d always wanted to read. But most would list books that meant a lot to them, ones they’d want to read over and over in their marooned state.
These days, I’m retired; and one of the greatest pleasures of that rather inert status is that I can read as much as I want. No more cramming books in between house tasks on Saturday or Sunday before the workweek begins — or reading six pages at night and falling asleep. So in this column, with the kind forbearance of The Beachcomber, I’m going to explore some of the best books that have come into my life over the years — and ask readers to share their own choices.
Some books are well written but surprisingly unreadable; they either lack a good plot or are so in love with their own linguistic brilliance that reading them becomes rather a chore. Others tell good stories but relay them in distinctly mediocre text. Good writing is increasingly important to me the older I get. In my twenties, I would never drop a book halfway through; but now I do so fairly often — life’s too short to slog through a story that’s doing nothing for you.
Somerset Maugham once said how hard he worked to write well, but also noted that “The four greatest novelists the world has ever known, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, wrote their respective languages very indifferently. It proves that if you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write. All the same, it’s better to write well than ill.”
Which brings me to the first of my Desert Island list: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brother’s Karamazov.”
I always wished I could read this wonderful novel in the original Russian — but then my Russian wife told me that, actually, Dostoevsky reads a lot better in English translation (go figure – apparently Maugham was right). I will confess to loving huge, sprawling novels that take their time to slowly develop their story, and which are peopled with great characters and thoughtful ideas. There are few books that achieve this as well as “Karamazov.” Across its 900 or so pages, Dostoevsky lays out a broad range of moral choices and dilemmas faced by his characters, notably the three eponymous brothers: Ivan, the cynic and the atheist; Dmitri, the ne’er do well; and young Alyosha, the monk.
One chapter, which is sometimes extracted as a short story, typifies the book’s brilliance. If you have never read “The Grand Inquisitor,” I recommend you do: it is a masterwork within a masterwork. In a discussion about God with Alyosha, Ivan imagines a story in which Christ appears in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. He returns out of affection for people, and goes about performing miracles – and is of course arrested and thrown into jail. The Grand Inquisitor lectures Christ in the cell, telling him that he expected too much from human beings and that the last thing people actually want is free will. Instead, he says, they yearn for three things: give them miracle, mystery and authority, and they’ll follow you anywhere. We have improved upon your work, he says — and in the end, he throws Christ out into the street and tells him never to return.
“Karamazov” is an extraordinary literary achievement, replete with philosophical ideas, and also with Dostoevsky’s characteristic compassion for the plight of his characters. Beyond all that, this sweeping novel — written, by the way, in frantic haste by its author under the pressure of crushing debts from his compulsive gambling — is just a great winter read.
I’ll continue my list in the next column. But send me yours! Tell me which three or four books you’d take to that island and a brief explanation of why. My email is email@example.com
— Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.