Phil Clapham, reading and dreaming, with a trusty friend by his side (Courtesy Photo).

Phil Clapham, reading and dreaming, with a trusty friend by his side (Courtesy Photo).

Vox Populi: Readers Share Desert Island Book Selections

So many books, so little time…

  • Thursday, March 25, 2021 4:32pm
  • Arts

By Phil Clapham

For the Beachcomber

So, I promised a while back that I’d feature readers’ desert island book choices; and having delayed the fulfillment of that commitment, I now find I have rather too many to fit into a single column.

So herewith the first ones I received, with thanks to all the readers who’ve emailed me.

Stephanie Gogarten picked Tolkien’s ever-popular Lord of the Rings, but also Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down. Stephanie notes that this sprawling adventure novel about, well, bunnies, “has been my favorite book ever since I first read it at age 12 (I’m 39 now). I hadn’t been sure if it would be as good to read it again as an adult, but I was delighted to find a few years ago that the story was just as compelling as it was when I was young. I was nearing the end when the Water Taxi pulled in, and I walked up the hill to my house reading in the dark with a flashlight, unable to put it down.”

I also read Watership Down when I was young (it was first published in 1972). At the time, there was a very amusing political columnist for the London Times named Bernard Levin, who also reviewed books, and I will never forget his review of that one. It began (and I think this is almost verbatim): “Let the world go out into all the lands: for I have just read a great big book, all about rabbits, and lo! It was wonderful.”

A more recent choice for Stephanie is the “Broken Earth” trilogy, by N.K. Jemison. Of this, she says, “This is the most sublime work of fiction I have read in a very long time, and Jemisin is the first author ever to win the Hugo Award three times in three consecutive years for all volumes of her trilogy. The narrative structure is ingenious: seemingly disparate stories, one told in the second person, that turn out to be intimately connected. The world Jemisin creates comes from a brilliant imagination, and she uses it to explore some of humanity’s most gripping themes: how fear of those who are different leads to an attempt to subjugate and control them, and how the comfort and stability of some is at the expense of the suffering of others.”

Sharon Briskman says that her selection, “hands down, is John Steinbeck. Forced to make a choice — and it is a difficult one — I would choose East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, and Steinbeck’s journal. I would, of course, prefer an entire set of his novels and his Sea of Cortez journal. His characters are without artifice. They are as current and valid today as when written.” To which I would add that Cannery Row is a delight, and a must-read if you ever visit Monterey, California, where it’s set.

Cindy Hoyt’s first choice for a desert island read would be Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. She notes that in 2006 “the New York Times Book Review published a list of American novels compiled by a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages who’d been asked to identify ‘the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years. Winter’s Tale was among only 22 books to receive multiple votes, and it certainly has mine; I’ve rarely experienced such beautiful writing paired with such a compelling plot. It’s a love story between people, machines, and New York City, set in a deliberately vague period that could be anywhere between 1880 and 1940. There’s a deliciously drawn villain (he’s addicted to color) and a metaphorical white horse whose ability to fly waxes and wanes along with the protagonist’s fortunes, all moving through a wonderland that makes even sun-struck people like me wish icy weather would come to stay.”

I’d note that Helprin also wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read about World War One, entitled A Soldier of the Great War – brilliantly written and featuring a sweetly rendered love story at its heart.

York Wong’s picks include the classic novel that kicked off this column some months back, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: it deals, he notes, “with faith/free will, evil/redemption, and much more”. He also recommends de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which has “individualism becoming totalitarianism” as one of its themes….and pairs that with Hannah Arendt’s Origin of Totalitarianism. Continuing with history and politics, he chooses My Dearest Friend, the letters between John and Abigail Adams; the latter being “the first activist for women’s rights, asking her husband to ‘remember the ladies’ in the U.S. Constitution.” And finally, he picks Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, on existentialism and postmodern feminism.

Cynthia Phillips offered a broad set of choices, including Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance, about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. Personally, I found the original Endurance by Alfred Lansing to be the ultimate page-turning chronicle of that thrilling and improbable tale of survival; but Alexander writes really well, and she also penned a superb chronicle, The Bounty, about the infamous mutiny. Cynthia also loved Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the Washington writer Jim Lynch’s book Border Songs. She’s also a fan of the Russians, including Dostoevsky again (Crime and Punishment this time), and Solzhenitsyn’s grim tale of life in the gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Finally, my fellow ex-pat Maggie Aspland gives three choices: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (“her best novel and a terrific rendition of the social order in a small English town”); Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (“family and marriage written with such brilliance and intimate insight”); and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion (“his best work, and the epic novel of the Pacific Northwest”).

Ah, so many books, so little time… Which books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at … and visit for more book-related stuff.

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

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