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My Desert Island Library

Cast ashore on the proverbial desert island, I would want to have these books with me. They are ones I could read and re-read for a very long time. The only rule: one book per author.

Walter Abish. How German Is It.
J.G. Ballard. Empire of the Sun.
John Banville. The Book of Evidence.
Samuel Beckett. Molloy.
Thomas Bernhard. Woodcutters.
Michel Butor. Passing Time.
Lúcio Cardoso. Chronicle of the Murdered House
Robert Coover. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
Mathias Enard. Zone.
Jenny Erpenbeck Visitation.
Annie Ernaux. The Years.
Julien Gracq.  The Narrow Waters.
Graham Greene. The Heart of the Matter.
Peter Handke. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.
Gabriel Josipovici. The Cemetery at Barnes. [newest nomination]
Franz Kafka. The Castle.
Esther Kinsky. River.
Ágota Kristóf. The Proof.
William Maxwell. The Chateau.
Herman Melville. Moby-Dick.
Alberto Moravia. Contempt.
Harry Mulisch. The Assault.
Robert Musil. The Man Without Qualities.
Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita.
Peter Nadas. A Book of Memories.
Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet.
Robert Pinget.  Passacaglia.
Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea.
Nathalie Sarrautie. Tropisms.
W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn.
Patti Smith. M Train.
Rebecca Solnit. The Faraway Nearby.
Susan Sontag. The Volcano Lover.
Ronald Sukenick. Blown Away.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway.
Marguerite Yourcenar. Memoirs of Hadrian.

(Subject to change on pure whim.)

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Now this is an excellent list, I say in near ignorance (I’ve read 8 of them). But another 7 or 8 are in my “I know I need to read this someday” category.

    January 16, 2008
  2. charlie rangeley #

    I suppose you could always fry bananas with the Ballard and make room for something good like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger instead. Nice list apart from that clanger!

    September 28, 2010
  3. Charlie, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger was one of my college favorites, and I read it several times. But that was the early 70s. I’ll have to revisit this. Thanks for the reminder of a title I’d lost track of.

    September 28, 2010
  4. charlie rangeley #

    I thought it would be up your street. I was also going to add Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi which I read recently and thought fabulous. It’s funny how you can be reminded of author’s / books long forgotten. Your list reminded me that I had read and enjoyed a load of Moravia stories when I was at Uni trying to be moody and existential.

    September 29, 2010
  5. charlie rangeley #

    Woops. Make that ‘authors / books’ without the ‘duh’ apostrophe.

    September 29, 2010
  6. I’d thrown in Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the 6-volume Modern Library edition, and I would also add the most essential desert island book, How to Get Off a Desert Island.

    December 21, 2011
  7. Wait a sec…Malone by Beckett? No such novel. Don’t you mean Malone Dies? Or were you thinking of Molloy? Or Murphy? Doesn’t really matter, since they’re all .

    January 2, 2012
  8. Appropriately, the final word was truncated from my previous comment. The word was “Unnamable.” Somewhere, Samuel Beckett is laughing what’s left of his arse off.

    January 2, 2012
    • Molloy. I still remember the shiver of recognition when I first read Molloy (and the rest of Beckett’s trilogy) some forty years ago. Thanks for catching this conflation of Molloy and Malone Dies… I’ve changed the listing accordingly.

      January 2, 2012
  9. michael paine #

    Great list – I’d second the additions of Joyce & Proust and maybe suggest Perec’s Life and Maxwell’s JR. Much as I love the Yourcenar, I think I’d have to opt for her later novel, The Abyss.

    February 5, 2012
  10. 1 title per author that’s a challenge, great list Terry.

    Be hard to survive on an island sans – Thomas Pynchon? William Gaddis? Roberto Bolano? and as earlier suggested Joyce? Perec? Proust?

    August 7, 2013
  11. Geoffrey, I think I could manage without Pyncheon. I reread The Crying of Lot 49 recently and tried to reread Gravity’s Rainbow and, frankly, got stuck – they seem dated to me. Gaddis – probably J.R., but I’ve not read The Recognitions yet. My favorite Bolano is By Night in Chile, but I haven’t read the big titles yet (Savage Detective or 2666). I just reread Joyce’s A Portrait of the Arts and still love the first half, and I recently reread long sections of Ulysses. And I haven’t read the key Perec title Life: A User’s Manual, just a bunch of the shorter works. That’s not to say these aren’t important books in many respects, but they are not my personal favorites that I could pick up and read over and over.Too, this list is my way to keep some favorite names in circulation, like Abish and Sukenick and Yourcenar.

    August 9, 2013
  12. well. spending time on this literary island so over-populated with men, does sound curious to me…

    February 9, 2014
  13. Hannah Jablonski #

    I would be ”glad oh so very glad” to read other wish lists as composed by our host here. See how whims ruffle its column. I would not suggest Bolano’s LOS DETECTIVES SALVAJES, though, unless you have a return ticket, for you see, while reading, you will be missing so many books that are behind Roberto Bolano’s lines. (This might do for many other works…) This idea of a deserted island is cruel, after all. Unless the island be but the provisory address we move to, by intervals, with a book. Bye the bye, this blog will have a special corner amidst my favorites. A chance encounter after reading ‘Max Ferber’ in THE EMIGRANTS & AUSTERLITZ as well. I jumped into donGoogleDotCom’s emporium, because of both these (secret) characters : Wittgenstein & Jan Peter Tripp. & here I am. Oh my!, a deserted island, where nothing else would be left but to invent what’s missing. God forbid. A propos (to Cheri), this (virtual) literary island is well-nigh deserted. Remember, only Peter Pitts haunts its vicinity. & voices hover, so to say, above the pages of books. You would not know the male from the female. Marguerite’s MÉMOIRES D’HADRIEN is ”populated” with men. Bonne année to you & everybody, in America. h., Paris, France

    January 1, 2016
  14. Stephen Downes #

    Terry, I enjoyed your desert-island list, having read several but by no means all of the books you nominate. But I’d like to email you with details about a project of mine and can’t see anywhere your email address. I’m finishing next year a PhD on Sebald’s use of the uncanny and nostalgia, and have written an 81,000-word novel as its major part. Your answers to several questions would be invaluable, I’m sure.

    October 10, 2017
  15. John Pye #

    I am grateful to have discovered your site and am greatly enjoying it. And all through W G Sebald, an author who was unknown to me until about a week ago.
    A little about myself – I am a retired accountant (boring to most people but I met some amazing people throughout my career). I had a basic education but later in life discovered the joys of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart et al and developed an interest in ‘recent’ Jewish history and the Third Reich and the aftermath of the war.
    I don’t quite know why I’m sending this to you other than to say that I find your writing fascinating and your list of Desert Island books coinciding in many cases with my own. I now plan to read those on your list which I have not yet done so.
    So thanks again and keep up the good work.
    John Pye

    August 28, 2021
    • John, Thank you for your comment! It is always gratifying to know that someone is out there paying attention to the blog. If I had a mission statement for Vertigo it would be to enthuse people about the books I love. It looks like you fell into my trap. Happy reading!

      August 28, 2021
  16. Basteph Friedland #

    I am flabbergasted at
    1. How much you read.
    2. How much you love Sebald, even more than I do, and I’ve never met anyone like that.
    Have you ever written a book yourself?
    Cheers and please keep feeding our souls.

    August 31, 2022
  17. Basteph Friedland #

    I am flabbergasted at
    1. How much you read.
    2. How much you love Sebald, even more than I do, and I’ve never met anyone like that.
    Have you ever written a book yourself?
    Cheers and please keep feeding our souls.

    August 31, 2022
  18. Hi Basteph, It’s easy to read a lot when one is retired! When I was a photography curator in the 1980s and 90s, I had the opportunity to write several books. The best are probably two books about Edward Weston, one published by Taschen in 1999 and one that I co-authored with several others for Thames & Hudson in 1995. I don’t write fiction. Thanks for your comment!

    August 31, 2022

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