Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Books I can't live without

You know that game where you have to pick five books to take with you to a desert island? I hate that game. First of all, no matter which five you pick, someone’s going to argue with you or make fun of your choices. Second, I rarely believe the lists people make—half the time, they’re just trying to impress somebody. (Yeah, right, like you really want to spend what’s left of your lonely life slogging through Moby Dick over and over again.) Third, how could I possibly choose? There are too many books out there that I haven’t read yet—how can I possibly make a list when I don’t have all the choices?

Maybe I’m making this game too hard. Maybe I should just quit playing it with English grad students (hence the whole Moby Dick one-upmanship). Heck, I can’t choose a favorite song or movie either. Too many possibilities.

But there are some books that are indispensable. Books that should be on everyone’s shelf—whether you want to be a writer or not. So, while not necessarily the books I’d take to a desert island, I wouldn’t want to live without them.

1). The Dictionary. Seriously. Yes, I’m enough of a geek that I find the dictionary an endless font of entertainment and have been known just to flip it open for fun, but every house should have at least one. Three would be optimal. I don’t care if the dictionary is on-line these days; nothing beats looking up a word. The definitions in a real dictionary are far more complete than the ones on-line, and you often stumble upon a new word while you’re looking up a different one.

2). A thesaurus. I can barely say the word, much less spell it, but a thesaurus can stretch your vocabulary in wondrous new ways. Synonyms require you to distinguish fine shades of meaning as you search for le mot juste. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

3). Bartlett’s Quotations. So you can do what I just did and go look up exactly what Mark Twain said about the “right word.”

4). A grammar book. Because no one can honestly remember where all the commas belong.

5). The Bible. I don’t care what religion you are (and y'all know I'm not exactly a theological scholar, so this has nothing to do with religion, per se). So much of literature, art, music-- you name it-- is either directly based on, alludes to, or builds from the Bible.

6) A good mythology book. Again, so much alludes to or builds on mythology, a good working knowledge opens up a world of meaning.

7) The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Because there is a whole world waiting for you in those plays and sonnets. The language may be daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll see how powerful writing can be. The man’s a freaking genius.

Four of these books are on the shelf directly above my desk at all times--and they wouldn't be on the list going to the island. The other three are only a bookshelf away. Of course, they share that bookshelf with all the other books I love—a couple of hundred at least that I just can’t bear to part with. No way I could just pick five of them to come with me to the desert island.

So I’m not going to ask you to do the impossible and pick the five books you’d take with you…I’d worry if you were able to narrow it down to five anyway. Instead, what books do you think are indispensable—as either a writer, a reader, or simply a human being?


Linda Winstead Jones said...

Oohhhh. Within reach, I have The Lincoln Library of Essential information, Sonnets of Shakespeare (the complete works are around here somewhere, but the dang thing's too heavy to put on the flimsy shelf above my computer), Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, A Knight and His Weapons, a couple of historical costume books, a book of names, and a couple of woowoo books. What books do I have to have? All of them. How can you choose? I have three bookcases filled with research books, and I love them all. Even the ones I haven't opened yet. :-)


Playground Monitor said...

I uh.. use... uhm... the online dictionary and thesaurus, but I do have a Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary loaded on my computer. I think I gave my actual books to one of the kids for college. Now I do have a grammar book that I got at a flea market or something. I mean... grammar doesn't change. And I use the Internet for quotations and names too. I HAVE those books; they're just not on the shelf. So I'd be up the creek if my PC went down, wouldn't I?

I don't know how I'd pick 5 books. Maybe I'd just take the 5 romances I wouldn't mind reading over again?

Just who's making us go to this island? And did it say we had to stay there forever????


Smarty Pants said...

5 books...

I agree on the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I bought it from the used bookstore when I was 10. I was a weird kid.

Second, would be my beautiful leather bound edition of Jane Eyre. I sold plasma to buy it in college.

Third would be my Harry Potter books. Yes, I know there's 6 of them, but darnit, I'm considering them a collection.

Fourth would be Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Yes, if I could sneak the rest of the series onto the island, I would.

Fifth...maybe "How to Survive on a Desert Island for Dummies?" Or maybe Ivanhoe. Or Skye O'Malley. Or...or...or...


Kathy said...

PC, I'm so happy that I have all the books you've mentioned except the book of quotations, which I've eyed at the bookstore on several occassions but have yet to buy.

I have biographies, 2-3 shelves on the American Indian, an Encyclopedia set that I could never do without, (my Mom always told us to look things up and refused to tell us anything because it was better for us to find out about it ourselves), dictionaries of many different sorts and languages, Bible dictionaries of many different kinds, writing how to books, you name it...I probably have it. In fact, I need more book cases to hold it all. And I still want more books. Travel, pictorial, audio...yes, give me books.

But just 5? I would probably take the ones you've mentioned plus Gone With the Wind and the Phantom of the Opera.

Instigator said...

Okay, am I the only one who doesn't own several of the books you mentioned? Don't have Shakespeare (although that's one I wouldn't mind having), or the quotations, I think I might have a dictionary somewhere - but don't ask me where (I use the computer. I know).

I do own a thesaurus (which I couldn't live without), several grammar books (which I should consult more often), and of course the Bible (cause I'm a good Catholic girl)

As for what I'd take....
Gone with the Wind for sure.
The Outlander series (I'm lumping them together)
Honey Moon by SEP
Romance Writing for Dummies
and that Thesaurus. The playfriends will be on the island with me right? I won't need a grammar book if I've got you and Angel :-)


J.B. Thompson said...

What a great list, PC! Excellent points about the Bible, mythology and Shakespeare, especially.

I'm 5 for 7 as far as having all of them - I really need to get a copy of Bartlett's, and how is it that I, a student of Latin for five years, do not have a mythology book?

I'm not sure whether I can think of anything to add as far as books that would be "indispensable" (had to grab the dictionary off my desk to check my spelling on that one - should've referred back to PC's post), unless it would be something historical (i.e. the classics) - I mean fiction with its basis in historical events, like Steinbeck or Twain. Something that captures the essence of our heritage by portraying the true-life struggles our forefathers endured.

Oooh, just qualified for the Moby Dick club, didn't I? That one I WOULDN'T include if I had to pick five books for the island - blech. Why would you want to read a book about the ocean if you were on an island in the middle of one? Hello? But I do think every writer, reader and human being should read it at least once in their lifetime. All the classics, for that matter. We need to expand our horizons.

As far as which five I'd take if I had to choose - I'm with you, PC, I hate that game. Too many choices. Waaaaay too many. ;)

Problem Child said...

well, I now know what PM and instigator are getting for Christmas...

j.b.--I'll take Twain...you can keep Steinbeck.

Sorry, SP and Instigator--you do not get to count series as a book. Unless they are bound together (like the complete Shakespeare!)


Smarty Pants said...

:: snicker ::

I don't own a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a grammar book. No comments about how that is obvious by my work, please. I use online ones, yes. Along with an online name database. PC, so you'd better join a book club before Christmastime gets here.


Playground Monitor said...

Does that mean Instigator and I aren't getting new Barbie's for Christmas?

PLEASE don't make me read Herman Melville again. The man takes digression to a whole new level.


Problem Child said...

I will never make anyone read Melville for any reason.

You people without dictionaries...this makes my holiday shopping SOOOOO much easier.

(Sad thing is, folks, they all think I'm kidding. I'm not. Dictionaries all around.)

my word verification is qvojczx. These things just keep getting harder!