Desert Island Reading

If you had to be stuck on a desert island for [life, ten years, or some other long period of time], what books would you want with you?”

It’s a common thought experiment, and usually the occasion of much consideration and discussion. If you hang out with the more passionate readers, as I often do, it will also be the occasion of heated debate. Yesterday, I happened upon an interesting twist on it, and I’d like to share it.

So get out your pen and paper, and here we go.

No, seriously, get out a pen and paper. (Or open a Word document, or whatever). You’ll thank me later.

The challenge is to answer the standard question, as stated above, but with two additional conditions. First, all your physical needs are taken care of, so assume you have no pragmatic need for medical texts, homesteading reference books, etc. This is strictly life-of-the-mind stuff. (Of course, if you enjoy reading medical texts, that’s another thing…) Second, you have only two minutes to answer, starting right now.

Go. Tick tock.

Done? Good. I’d love to hear your list. This was mine:

  1. Adler’s Great Books set by Brittanica
  2. Schaff’s The Early Church Fathers (all three sub-sets)
  3. The Bible: English, Greek, Hebrew and Latin
  4. The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary

That’s it. It’s missing an awful lot, but it’ll still be a decade or so before I really start to suffer from it.

One of the interesting things about this challenge is the immediacy of it, and therefore what you wind up leaving out because it you just didn’t think of it within the two-minute time limit. This prompts a second list.

Now let’s be clear: the second list is not a list of all the books you wish you could take with you, like you would make in the standard, not-time-limited challenge. This is a list of the forehead-slapping, I-can’t-believe-I-forgot-that books, the ones you’re at least slightly ashamed not to have thought of, even though you only had two minutes. Here’s mine:

  1. The writings of Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, John Calvin, and Cornelius Van Til.
  2. The works of Douglas Adams. It can’t all be serious.
  3. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (or something comparable)
  4. A good hymnal or three.
  5. Really outstanding reference grammars for English, Greek, Hebrew and Latin

I’d love to see your second list, too.

For the third and final part of our challenge, here’s a little personal “gotcha.” Just so you all know, this occurred to me this morning as I write, and made me go “ouch.” So if this prods you a bit, I’m just sharing the wealth. Presumably the books you listed in the two above lists are important to you, more important than many other things you read. So compare your lists to your present reading habits…

Postscript: Justifying the Classics

I’m not going to try to tell you what you should have had on your list, except to say that if the Bible was the only thing on it that’s more than 100 years old, you need to get out more.

Why the classics? Because Solomon was right — there is nothing new under the sun. These writers have grappled with the great human questions, and their ways of engaging the questions — if not their answers — have stood the test of time. In order to do that, it’s not enough to be right, or even entertaining. The work has to be rich, thought provoking, and reward the fifth or sixth reading more than the first, and the tenth even more than that. Not because it’s just unreadable, like so many “important” modern literary works, but because the authors scatter pearls with both their hands, some right on the surface, many not, and the insights come so thick and fast that you can’t get them all in the first pass, or even the fifth.

And it has to be beautiful, the sort of beauty that you find in a really good wine, the sort that educates your aesthetic as you go, the sort that has to be teased out, the sort that leaves you breathless and tingling just trying to get your head around it.

“Why does all that matter?” someone will want to know. These people will be of two types: soulless utilitarians and ill-informed Christians. My answer to the former is to convert him to Christianity.

…which may not, in itself, be sufficient. There are plenty of Christians who will ask the same question. One can’t simply answer that beauty is its own argument (although genuine beauty is), because if they would understand that answer, they wouldn’t have asked the question. One can’t give a utilitarian answer; that’s never enough to satisfy Christian ethics. If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then what do all these dead white males have to do with that? Why not just stick with the Bible?

The pagan classics represent thousands of years of men made in God’s image struggling to live in God’s world while at the same time rebelling against its Creator, with all the futility, ugliness, and darkness that implies. They have stumbled upon much of value, because they are made in God’s image and do live in God’s world. Moreover, they are a valuable cautionary tale, because to the extent that we are sinners, the same darkness lurks in our own hearts, and frankly, it’s easier to spot it first in someone else. The Christian classics represent thousands of years of struggle by our brothers and sisters to understand, guard, rule, and name the creation in a manner worthy of the Creator. God has been pleased to preserve this heritage for us, that even in this life we might have a limited fellowship with the dead as well as the living.

Why not just stick with the Bible? Because our Creator has furnished us with a grand army of fragrant saints who have gone before us, and have much to teach us. Because God made a rich, complex, and beautiful world. Because God charged us with the responsibility of ruling that world as vassal kings and queens, protecting and cultivating it for our good and His glory. Because if the Christian story is true — and it is — then we are either royal poet gardeners or rebellious servants. Because our task is not easy, and if we are not trained by holy beauty, we are not fit to do it well.


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