The Desert Island Bookworm Praises Page-Turner

What a glorious tale “Shogun” is — rarely has history come so alive.

  • Monday, November 23, 2020 3:20pm
  • Arts
Phil Clapham

Phil Clapham

Which books would you take to a desert island?

I’ll admit it: my list of Desert Island Books tends to favor classics (which, let’s face it, are classics for a reason).

But, were I to be stranded for heaven knows how long on a sandy atoll in the middle of nowhere, without access to either the internet or — possibly more important — little umbrella drinks, I’d want some lighter fare too. Well, “lighter” is unfair; I mean books that don’t necessarily leave you pondering the profound niceties of the Human Condition, but which are just a great story and a rollicking read.

Many years ago, in my feckless youth, I took a 20-hour Greyhound bus trip across the Midwest to Boston. I was desperately in need of something to read on the trip, to stave off boredom. A book can also serve to fend off those peculiar individuals who seem to inhabit Greyhound buses on long journeys; you know, the ones who sit down next to you and for the next several hours tell you, unsolicited, the story of their lives, their troubles, the sordid details of their divorce(s), and which internal organs they’ve had removed… or who insist on explaining to you why it’s absolutely essential that you let their particular version of God into your life, now, today, before it’s too late to save your sin-wracked soul.

Anyway, among the meager offerings in the tiny newsagent’s store in the bus terminal was James Clavell’s “Shogun.” I opened this 1,150-page giant shortly after we departed, and about 700 pages later I looked up to see that we were already entering Boston. Such is the power of a good page-turner.

There are few pleasures in life as delicious as a book that you can’t wait to get back to – books that you devour in a few sittings, and which occupy your thoughts in between. Most of Clavell’s historical novels of Asia are in this category, and none more so than “Shogun,” the first in the series. It’s set in the feudal society of Japan of 1600 and chronicles the ascendancy to the shogunate of a lord named Toranaga. This fictitious character is loosely based on a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu, who in 1603 became shogun (essentially a military dictator who was in theory subservient to the Emperor but was, in reality, the country’s major power).

The central character in the novel, who is witness to Toranaga’s rise to power, is a wash-ashore English maritime pilot named John Blackthorne. And again, Blackthorne is based upon a real pilot named William Adams, who survived a shipwreck, was taken prisoner and, like Blackthorne, became a close and influential advisor to the shogun.

Those are the basics of the story; but oh, what a glorious tale it is — rarely has history come so alive. Clavell gives us great historical detail, together with a generous helping of sex, violence and political intrigue to keep us charging along. “Shogun” contains some predictably horrific descriptions of medieval brutality, including the single-most memorable – and I really wish it wasn’t – torture scene I’ve ever read. But the depth of the novel is unmatched; it gives the reader a fascinating picture of 17th century feudal Japan and does so with a thrilling story that is compelling from beginning to end.

One might think that the novel hinges on a racist stereotype; but actually, Clavell portrays his westerners as uncouth barbarians. They have no manners, and they stink to high heaven because they don’t believe in cleanliness. Clavell shows the Japanese need for harmony, and accurately captures the honor code of bushido and the samurai way of life. This is an alien perspective to the western world, but it’s very much Japan as it was, and to an extent sometimes still is.

The intelligent Blackthorne begins as a typical “barbarian,” but gradually comes to appreciate the Japanese way of seeing the world (though there are still aspects with which he disagrees). He becomes samurai himself. Clavell brilliantly shows the gradual transformation of Blackthorne’s attitude, from knee-jerk xenophobic rejection to gradual assimilation and appreciation of many aspects of the culture.

Certainly, not all page-turners are fiction. To give but one example: over the past year or so, I have worked my way through most of the books written by Ben MacIntyre. Most of these involve true spy stories, and all are outstanding reads. MacIntyre thoroughly researches his subjects, and lays out the story with fascinating detail, portraits of memorable characters, and a keen eye for absurdity (of which, it turns out, there is much in the espionage world).

His work includes, among many other titles, Double Cross, the extraordinary story of Britain’s network of double agents — some of them true eccentrics — who fooled the Nazis into believing the D-Day landings would occur at Calais, not Normandy; Operation Mincemeat, in which the British successfully executed a ridiculously unlikely plan to plant false papers on a dead body dropped off the Spanish coast to mislead the Germans regarding the location of the invasion of southern Europe; and The Spy and the Traitor, which is, for me, the best of his books.

This last title details the career of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel whom the British ran as a double agent for years, and who was finally betrayed by the U.S. mole Aldrich Ames. To that say that the book is thrilling is an understatement; it is as much a page-turner as the very best spy novels, from Le Carré on down (all the more so for being real). Remarkably, the British successfully exfiltrated Gordievsky out of Russia, and the details of this absurdly improbable operation will keep you reading well into the night.

Which books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.

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