Which books would you take to a desert island?
It’s not often that one of your favorite authors emails you out of the blue, but that delightful surprise was waiting in my inbox one day some years ago.
Enter Mary Roach, whose books about research into weird subjects frequently end up on that most hallowed of sites, the New York Times bestseller list. Roach’s books are all quirky, fascinating and frequently hilarious. Her first such venture into the weirder side of scientific inquiry was Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, in which she laid out the history of experimentation on corpses, with various musings about death thrown in.
Other equally compelling monosyllabic titles followed, including Bonk and Spook, being the history of research into sex and the afterlife, respectively. Gulp, which promised “adventures on the alimentary canal”, dealt with the oddities of the gastrointestinal system and its accompanying senses.
And that, in a manner of speaking, was where I came in.
When one is pondering the question of how said digestive system works, it’s probably only a matter of time before one starts thinking about the story of Jonah and the whale. Mary wanted to know the obvious: could a whale really have swallowed the hapless Jonah, and could he have survived the experience? I don’t know how she found me — maybe by googling “whale biologist with overly developed sense of the absurd”.
The short answer, as I told her, was that of all the great whales, the only one with a gullet large enough to accommodate a human being is the sperm whale (baleen whales like the humpback and blue whale have very small gullets, despite the enormous capacity of their mouths). And even if Jonah had been vacuumed up by a sperm whale, it is exceedingly unlikely that he could have survived in the hostile gastrointestinal environment of the animal’s stomach. But then, this biblical malarkey all being arranged by a supposedly omnipotent god, I suppose you have to give the tale some latitude.
To make a long story short, that explanation made it into the book, along with an anecdote about a dog named Gracie I once owned. Gracie, a wonderful shepherd-Dobie mix, had a habit of swallowing snakes and then throwing them up, live — sometime later, to the horror of dinner guests.
Mary and I have been friends ever since — we share the same sick sense of humor — and we occasionally exchange suitably absurd experiences. Random example: in 2010 I visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and was delighted to find the Reliquary Room. I’ve always had a fascination with religious relics, and have long had a fantasy of traveling the world to visit some of the more ridiculous ones, and writing a book about the experience.
The great palace of the Ottoman sultans houses some of the best: the forearm of John the Baptist, the footprint of Mohammed (and a hair from his beard), and — my absolute favorite, which I couldn’t resist texting Mary about — the “saucepan of Abraham” (as I said to her at the time, the lighting in the glass display case was too dim to see whether this ordinary metal pot still contained the remains of the spaghetti sauce of Abraham). But I digress.
Roach’s latest, due out later this year, is called Fuzz, which is essentially a humorous exploration of human-wildlife conflict (the UK title is Animal, Vegetable, Criminal). I’ve enjoyed all her books — the numerous funny stories and wacky facts are often highly entertaining — but my favorite is the non-monosyllabic Packing For Mars: this explores how scientists and engineers approach the very challenging questions of how astronauts are supposed to accomplish in space the often routine tasks that we don’t give a second thought to here on the planet’s surface. If you like science and weird humor, give one of Mary Roach’s books a try — they’re best-sellers for a reason.
Anyway, I thought I’d ask Mary for her own desert island book choices. Here’s what she replied…
“My desert island reads fall into three piles. Pile the first: books that make me laugh. Because I’ll need some laughs. Norwood, by Charles Portis, tops the list. The chicken scene made me laugh aloud, a sort of strangled bark that caused my husband to come in from the kitchen. Portis isn’t merely funny. He writes as beautifully as Cormac McCarthy. What else? Any one of the David Sedaris collections. This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter. And Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent — the humor is a bit mean, but I recall thinking it was the funniest book I’d ever read… Mind you, this was 35 years ago — I also thought Ghostbusters was hilarious.
“The second stack: excellent reads set in cold climates. I’m assuming this island is hot and muggy. Best of the lot is Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s spare, galloping telling of the Shackleton debacle. Cold by Bill Streever — a fascinating, wide-ranging nonfiction exploration of, well, cold. Rounding things out, we’ve got Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides.
“Final pile: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer; Twelfth of December, by George Saunders; Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry; The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt; the Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; Let the Great World Spin, and Dancer, both by Colum McCann; Descent, by Tim Johnston; and the Death and Life of Zebulon Finch (both volumes), by Daniel Kraus. I remember feeling strongly, with each of these books, that I did not want to reach the end. This suggests I would be happy to read each one again, perhaps many times over. And that’s why they’re on the pile.
“The alternative to all of this would be a pile that looks something like this: Anna Karenina, Bleak House, In Remembrance of Things Past, Beowulf, Moby Dick, and Ulysses: a few of the wordy classics I never got around to reading. And will, at last, be forced, by circumstances, to get around to.”
So that’s Mary’s reading list. By the way, she once gave a talk on sex which remains in the top ten TED talks of all time. Search Youtube for “Mary Roach TED talk” and it’ll come right up. The last part, involving the artificial insemination of a pig, is one of the more hilarious things you’ll see this year.
As for the wordy classics she mentions, I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s line in his movie Annie Hall: “Just don’t take any course where you have to read Beowulf.” Nerd that I am, I will confess to enjoying this tale about a 6th-century Scandinavian hero and the monster he slays; although since I’m also someone who loves an underdog, I prefer John Gardner’s Grendel, which retells the story from the point of view of — who else? — the monster.
What are your desert island choices? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit desertislandbookworm.com.
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist and writer who lives on Maury Island. His new novel, “Jack,” a romantic comedy narrated by a dog who lives with a dominatrix, is available on Amazon, under his pseudonym, Phillip Boleyn.