10 Books To Read Before You Die

G.K. Chesterton was asked what book would he most like to have with him on a desert island. Slick as ever, he said, Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. And then there was the lady who was complaining to, I think, Bertrand Russell, that she couldn’t understand why all the fuss with the Bible and Shakespeare. “They are filled with cliches,” she said.

These anecdotes were on my mind when I learned that AOL published recently a list of books that must be read before handing in your dinner pail (my favorite euphemism for death, from Pelham Grenville W.). Here’s the list:

  1. Bible — Various

  3. Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell

  5. The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien

  7. Harry Potter — JK Rowling

  9. The Stand — Stephen King

  11. The Da Vinci Code — Dan Brown

  13. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee

  15. Angels and Demons — Dan Brown

  17. Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand

  19. The Catcher in the Rye — JD Salinger

When I saw these names, I first thought the roll was the result of an internet poll (regular readers know I learned my lesson here) and that the only thing missing was the, surely forthcoming, My Life by Steve Jobs, a publishing event likely to lead Apple fanboys to perpetual, unrelievable ecstasy. (I suggest that Jobs, before he cops it, farm the work out to whomever ghosted Obama’s books: gush is too weak a word to describe critics’ reactions to these entries.1) At any rate, the AOL offering is the work of one man, and more than anything, this list demonstrates the dangers and horrific consequences that can result from too much self-esteem, or watching too much television, or whatever excess it was that lead the author to such embarrassing revelations.

Incidentally, the #1 slot was given as the “Holy” Bible, fearing, as many must, that the document might be mistaken for the “Unholy” version of the same were the modifier absent. The author doesn’t say, but I strongly recommend King James’s effort for the pure beauty of the words and their, as Russell’s lady hinted, intimate familiarity.

Kahneman and Tversky’s warning about Anchoring and Adjustment is now relevant to us. We must, having read AOL’s recommendations, thoroughly purge them from our minds, lest we find they influence us in the creation of our own Top Ten. Thinking too much about the original can result in the kind of warped mental processes that lead “celebrities” to think writing children’s books are a good idea.

It is surely impossible to populate any kind of top ten list satisfactorily. No matter what is there, someone will argue persuasively that something else should have been, and many more will denounce particular choices. It’s also difficult to separate the prescriptive from the personal: am I suggesting these works to others, or are they the only books that will accompany me to a deserted isle? They must, at the least, be authors worth returning to again and again.

And whatever else the list will be, it will be too damn short, so the numbers geek in me insists I optimize both quality and quantity. Thus, here’s my (tentative) list, wherein I cheat by including multiple books that are clearly part of one whole, or are separate but can be found easily in omnibus collections, but in any case by one author (and in no particular order):

  1. Bible — King James edition

  3. Aubrey & Maturin — The Patrick O’Brian 20-book series

  5. Rumpole — John Mortimer’s collection (say, the first six to eight books)

  7. Jeeves & Wooster — PG Wodehouse (all of the series)

  9. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Edward Gibbon

  11. Essays — Montaigne

  13. Plays — Shakespeare

  15. Collection — The thickest you can find, of Mark Twain

  17. Trial and Death of Socrates — Plato

  19. The Rationality of Induction — David Stove

Even if you despise this compilation, you can be grateful that I resisted obvious bad jokes: like including the Collected Works of Karl Marx, printed on thin paper, because toilet paper on deserted archipelagos is scarce. Or having anything by a postmodernist, like Foucault, so that, whenever tedium drove me to his pages, I would be grateful for being so far from “civilization.”

The last book is not one I recommend to everybody (it is a work of epistemology containing highly technical arguments concerning induction and logical probability), but it’s one that I cannot imagine not having read. Stove (then Jaynes) has been more influential in my professional life than any other author.

We can now play David Lodge’s humiliation: name a book you haven’t read but think others have; one point awarded for each success. Unlike Changing Places‘s unlucky professor, I have read Hamlet; but I have not yet read more than the first two volumes of Gibbon. I’ll start: with Lodge, I’ll admit also to not reading War and Peace.


1For querulous readers inclined to dispute this, I suggest your time will be more profitably spent learning What Jane Austen heroine you are. I am Marianne Dashwood (who is “impulsive, romantic, impatient, and perhaps a bit too brutally honest”); this odd quiz was linked on a page discussing the AOL list. I am Marianne Dashwood


  1. PaulH

    Often these “must read” lists include Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has actually read the book, nor anyone who knows anyone who has read the book. But all the intelligentsia agree it’s a classic, a must read, or something like that. 😉

  2. I have read “War and Peace,” mostly on a dare, though more specifically part of an attempt at revenge upon me as a groomsman’s gift from my former best man and literature major. I actually enjoyed it, though I had a really tough time keeping all the Russian names straight.

    It’s probably too easy to say I haven’t read any Harry Potter books, but then I suppose there’s little humiliation in that admission. As a math major in college, I’ll admit to never reading a differential equations book (due to never taking the course–loaded up on too much of various flavors of algebra, plus another major’s worth of courses).

  3. Good question…similar to the Citizen Kane paradox….repeatedly voted the best movie ever by a gaggle of people/critics/magazines/film institutes, but I’ve never met a person who has seen it.

  4. You got further with Gibbon than me. I found its language just too antiquated. John Julius Norwich was much easier.

  5. Bernie

    Bernie’s List in no particular order

    1. Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman, Ralph Leighton, and Freeman Dyson

    2. But is it true? by Aaron Wildavsky

    3. Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle

    4. The Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

    5. Teutonic Knights by Henryk Sienkiewicz

    6. Aubrey and Maturin by Patrick O’Brian

    7. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

    8. Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

    9. History of the English Speaking People by Winston Churchill

    10. Brother Cadfael and Sister Fidelma by Peters and Tremayne – I know but it is kind of a pair

    Definite nos to Salinger, Tolkien, Mitchell, Dan Brown and JK Rowling (The movies are very good). Ayn Rand and Harper Lee – maybe.

    It is hard to argue with most of your list – but no on Montaigne and Plato. Clearly, I absolutely agree on Patrick O’Brian (adding Golden Ocean and Unknown Shore)

  6. Bernie

    Oh shoot, I left off my favorite author of all – how could I do that. Foremost historical novelist and contrarian extraordinaire, Kenneth Roberts. The lot please, but if only one, it has to be Oliver Wiswell. I will sacrifice Iain Pears.

  7. Speed

    “At any rate, the AOL offering is the work of one man, and more than anything, this list demonstrates the dangers and horrific consequences that can result from too much self-esteem, or watching too much television, or whatever excess it was that lead the author to such embarrassing revelations.”
    William M. Briggs

    “Note: This list is based on the results of a Harris Poll that asked 2,413 U.S. adults to name their favorite books.”
    Michael Tolosa
    No report on how many answered.

    Re: The Humiliation Game
    Marley and Me.

  8. jack mosevich

    You should add “Breaking the Law of Averages” by some famous statistician whos name escapes me.

  9. a jones

    The important thing about the King James as you call it, we call it the Authorised Version 1615, is that it was written to be read aloud. Hence those wonderful resonant phrases which have passed into the English language: for instance Lo and Behold.

    You would call this British English but how they long they will last here in a more secular age remains to be seen. Some have almost disappeared others are clearly more deeply rooted. So commonplace indeed that they apparently continue to pass down from generation to generation.

    Kindest Regards

  10. Briggs


    Say! I missed that (obviously)!. You have restored my cynicism in the masses. Thank you. But no points for you with me: I haven’t read Marley, either.


    Feynman is a good choice. His Lectures can easily be substituted for any on my list. I do not know Kenneth Roberts, but after your recommendation and a quick glance at Amazon, I am excited to read him. Any recommendations for us about what book would make the best starter?


    That book would be good for stopping leaks in your lean-to.

    a jones,


  11. Rich

    Just ten books? I hope to live longer than that. As someone who, when in the bathroom, defaults to the safety instructions on the bleach bottle for lack of other reading matter, my list of books could be quite embarassing. Sure it’s got War and Peace and Pascal’s Provincial Letters but also most of Georgette Heyer and, of fond memory, Noddy and the Magic Rubber by Enid Blyton. I’ve been reading for a long, long time.

    I’ve never read The Alexandrian Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (but most everything by Gerald).

  12. I’m going to bend the rules as much as I can following Professor Briggs:

    Forget the Bible or the complete works of Shakespeare (unless I run out of 2-ply).

    1. Encyclopedia Britannica
    2. The Feynman Lectures in Physics
    3. The complete works of Isaac Asimov
    4. The complete Schaum’s series in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry
    5. The complete works of Terry Pratchett
    6. The complete works of Gregory J. Davenport
    7. Best of Robert Ingersoll: Selections from His Writings and Speeches
    8. Decline and fall of the Roman Empire
    9. American Medical Association Complete Medical Encyclopedia
    10. The complete works of Martin Gardner

    Two items: a large heavy machete and a solar still.

    Bugger the six records and the gramophone. I’d have an iPod with 30,000 pieces of music and a solar charger.

  13. Bernie

    Matt and other curious readers:
    You can actually start with Oliver Wiswell to get a taste of Roberts at his finest. Then there is Arundel and Rabble in Arms. After which I suggest dipping into the non-fiction March to Quebec (2nd edition is more complete) where Roberts collects and compiles the diaries of those who went with Arnold to Quebec and you can see how careful a researcher Roberts was. I would also read at this point an excellent recent book, Through a Howling Wilderness by Thomas Desjardin. These books will give you a very different take on The Revolutionary War and Benedict Arnold. For a change in pace, Boon Island is excellent, but do not read it if you like to go sailing off the coast of Maine! I read Northwest Passage first when I was 12 or 13 and can still remember not being able to put it down. You should read it, however, before watching the Spencer Tracy movie.

    There are plenty of inexpensive copies of Roberts on ebay or at http://www.abebooks.com or Amazon. DownEast Books have re-issued the paperbacks, but they are large books and thus I prefer the more durable hardcover versions.

    So many great books, so little time!

  14. Bernie

    John A:
    You will need a container ship to get you there!

  15. Doug M

    The Bible? — The plot is a bore and the characters are flat.

  16. Bob Hawkins

    Some years ago, librarians were polled on the question, “What reading material would you want to have with you, if you were stranded on a desert island?” They chose “a tattooed sailor.”

    In that spirit, I’m going with Megan Fox.

  17. Andrew

    Of course, I certainly hope that Bertrand Russell explain to her that The Bible and Shakespeare weren’t filled with cliches, they invented the cliches!

    Doug M-The problem with the Bible isn’t the plot-or at least not all of it is bad plot. Revelation ought to be riveting. It’s the God-damn apocalypse for fricken literal sake. The problem is the writers made the material dull, or they wrote it in a language which to us today reads awkwardly and slowly, thus destroying the excitement.

    That’s independent of whether you like the religions attached to these texts, by the way.

    Nice list Matt.

  18. Tom Vonk

    Well I particularly liked the constraint to be able to return to the book over and over .
    It is a pretty severe constraint and I wonder why it is not used much more often because it is pretty logical .
    If you are alone on a desert island with only 10 books , they better have this particular property .
    This of course immediately disqualifies all Potters , Browns , Kings & Co .
    Having this property in mind I’d say in no particular order :
    1) A.Zinoviev (Yawning Heights)
    2) F.Kafka (The Castle)
    3) R.Musil (The man without qualities)
    4) A.Camus (The stranger)
    5) W.Goethe (Dr Faust)
    6) M.Boulgakov (Master and Margarita)
    7) D.Ruelle (Chaotic evolutions and strange attractors)
    8) G.G.Marquez (100 years of solitude)
    9) D.Alighieri (Divine Comedy)
    10) J.R.R Tolkien (Lord of the Rings)

    and even if there is no reason to laugh when one is alone on a desert island , I would smuggle in an 11th book (T.Pratchett) .
    If only because Rincewind who happens to be on a desert island is visited one day by 5 young , sculptural and beautiful women who have a serious problem because all men died on their island and they were sent on a quest to find at least one . They promise Rincewind raptures beyond imagination and anything he can dream of if he comes along . Rincewind is extremely reserved because he seriously doubts that they can have a potato soup 😉

  19. Tom Bakewell

    How about full page size OEDs and some Thomas Pynchon? If one doesn’t drive you batty the other will.

  20. Briggs


    Yes! How could I have forgotten the OED?

  21. Tom

    The Bible is clearly a personal choice. Of various religous tomes available I don’t see that as particularly. Probably better to read Dawkins on why we have Bibles, Korans etc.

    Beter than the Bible would be Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments. Althouh it really needs to be read in conjunction with Wealth of Nations (could that slip in as a two-part??)

  22. Tom

    @Wade Michaels.

    He dies in the end.

  23. Tom

    And he dies at the start.

  24. Briggs


    Smith’s Moral Sentiments is an excellent choice. We differ on Dawkins: better to read Aristotle, or anybody else less angry or less prone to mistakes.

  25. KBK

    More books which bear re-reading:

    Feynman – Lectures
    Penrose – The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
    Misner, Thorne, Wheeler – Gravity
    Faulkner – The Snopes Trilogy
    Faulkner – Absalom, Absalom
    Hobbes – Leviathan
    Jerry Z. Muller – The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought
    Bloom – The Closing of the American Mind

    or, if you still want to go home after those:

    ARRL – The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications

  26. Briggs


    Excellent choices—though I’m not familiar with Muller. I like the antenna book (on CD; I lust after a Beverage; no chance in my small apartment).

  27. michel

    his is a list for the contributors to this thread who think that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is a novel, Ayn Rand a philosopher, Tolkein is literature..and so on. If you think those things, or similar ones, its not a criticism of you, but you don’t know how to judge. These are not opinions, these are tests. They separate those who understand from those who do not. This is not, again, any criticism. There is still time to learn. If we think Hypercard was the answer, we are not programmers. We lack the power of judgment. We are not bad people for it. Not all of us write in C++ yet, but we can most of us learn.

    What to read?

    1) Start with Russell, History of Western Philosophy. Russell was a real philosopher, and will be a vaccination against Rand. And Hegel, and post modernism for that matter. Russells book is also not just a history of Philosophy, its also a history of Western culture, and sometimes of large aspects of Western society. This should be read cover to cover, on and off while reading the other recommendations.

    2) Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. You need to read this several times, carefully, thinking about what exactly it is. It is not a story, and it is not about Elizabeth Bennet, and it cannot be and has not been filmed. Its a document, written by its author over several years on scraps of paper concealed under sewing when anyone entered the communal sitting room. It went through several complete rewrites. Every word in it has been weighed, and the result is the first novel in English written for adults. You should only move on from this when you understand why a novel is not a story, but a document. What is a document exactly? Yes, that’s the question.

    3) George Eliot, Middlemarch. The only novel in English to offer any comparison to Anna Karenina. Apart from its brilliance, one thing you need to focus on here is how exactly the author goes wrong with Will Ladislaw. Yes, this is a document too.

    4) Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. It has its weaknesses, but its the supreme example of the novel, and no, its not the story of Anna.

    5) If you want to be a novelist, read Flaubert, Sentimental Education, which is the worlds greatest encyclopedia of technique. If you want to get an effect in prose, here you can find how its done. Apart from that its of no interest and less literary merit. Its like a collection of code snippets that have failed to become an application. But they are brilliant. Flaubert will show you how to do it, and also how to fail at doing it.

    6) You will need to read some poetry. So Helen Gardner’s selection of the metaphysical poets, and in them pay particular attention to Marvell’s Horation Ode. You should also read Pope (not the Essay on Man), and Dr Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes and London. In the twentieth century, Yeats – try to figure out what is being said in Sailing to Byzantium, and in Speech after long silence. If you understand this, and you understand what is being done in those famous lines in Marvell ‘while round the armed bands/did clap their bloody hands’ your education will have advanced. Read Keats’ Odes as well. You are trying to get your hands on places where the words are saying something different from what they mean. ‘No, no go not to Lethe.’ What causes it to be necessary to say this, and keep saying it?

    7) You’ll need some guide to all this, so get Yvor Winters, In Defence of Reason, and figure out why he goes so disastrously wrong on Robert Bridges. First you need to see that he is disastrously wrong. But then, why?

    8) Read Dr Johnson’s Essays, and some of his criticism from Lives of the Poets. The essays on Pope and Swift are particularly fine.

    9) You need some real history. The best would be something that would start around 1800 and cover colonialism, the Congo, and the European wars and massacres of the 20c. But if we have to pick one book, Orlando Figes, A people’s tragedy, will do to start with. Go on to Conquest’s accounts. You need some explanation of Rome, the ancient world, how it looked to the 18c. What you need is something that will let you read Gibbon with understanding. I don’t know of such a book. So read the first few books of Gibbon several times and try to see through them to what Rome looked like to them, as well as what it was. Read Horace and Juvenal in translation.

    10) Finally, read something modern of quality. Perhaps Foster, The Longest Journey, or A Passage to India. After you get through these, you can open Atlas Shrugged again, and you won’t get past the first page. Or anything by Harrold Robbins either. Or Gone with the Wind.

  28. Ira

    PaulH, it’s Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe), and it’s rather difficult to follow what’s going on, even with the books others have written about it. Ulysses, on the other hand, is worth the effort, although you’d need at least one of the heavier guides to accompany it.
    To add one author I haven’t had enough time to make much progress with: Sir Karl Popper, the philosopher. Very good, from what I’ve managed to sit down with.

  29. Rich

    What to read?

    1) Start with Wittgenstein. “Tractatus logico-philsophicus”. When you understand his final comment that everything you’ve just read is nonsense you’ll have a warm feeling that you’re in the presence of greatness.

    2) Jane Austen. “Northanger Abbey”. You should read it once, fast, laughing at the jokes. Try to understand the connection between John Thorpe and “Top Gear”.

    3) Mikhail Sholokov. “And Quiet Flows the Don”. It’s Russian and dark. Drink vodka while reading it. Or instead of.

    4) Tolstoy. “War and Peace”. Interesting as the only novel that has a beginning, a middle but no end.

    5) If you want to be a novelist read the Harry Potter books. Concentrate on how to make a personal fortune of a billion pounds.

    6) You really need to read some poetry. Begin with “The Tay Bridge Disaster” by William McGonagal. Meditate on why it is, in fact poetry. Despite everything. Question your conclusions.

    7) You will be tempted to believe that you need a guide to all things. Resist. To accept someone else’s opinion requires you to form your own opinion which must, necessarily be more important than the opinion about which you form an opinion. Cut out the middle man.

    8) Read Thomas Love Peacock. Samuel Johnson thought he was great!

    9) You need some history. Lyndsey Davis covers ancient Rome, Ellis Peters the Middle Ages, C. S. Forester the Napoleonic Wars. Remember that history is just something somebody wrote down. As is a novel.

    10) Expose yourself to modern quality. “The House at Pooh Corner” perhaps. Or “Green Eggs and Ham”. Try to understand that they are not novels nor were they written for children. Winnie ther Pooh is not the Hero. Sam-I-am might be though. Discuss.

    This is a document. It is not a criticism.

  30. a jones

    Of course there is the Pooh-perplex which I read a long time ago and I believe the also a follow up Post modern Pooh: which I haven’t read. Ideal for those who wish to understand the art of lterary criticism. And are familiar with Winnie the Pooh.

    Kindest Regards.

  31. michel

    We are living, in the West, at the end of a cultural and political empire. At such periods the edcuated elite tends to turn on its own culture and achievements, and ours is no exception. As part of this, in the background of most valuations of works of the imagination, and in the background of most prescriptions for social policy, you find an unexpressed series of assumptions.

    Roughly, there is no objective value or meaning in literature. To say that one book or poem is better than another is to say something about oneself and ones social and psychological fit with one rather than another. Meaning is a social artifact, it is just what we bring to what we read. There is no canon. What we used to think of as the canon was the literary expression of an ethos of a class at a point in history, and its main use was to articulate and reinforce its values.

    Still further in the background there is usually an assumption that the values which animated the works of the canon were capitalist, colonialist, class based, patriarchal, and there is still further back an even vaguer view that there is a liberal agenda, usually undefined but involving large use of central state power, in some way at odds with these values. It is part of this liberal social agenda to free ourselves from the blind worship of the canon.

    This point of view started to be articulated on any scale about 70 years ago, and by about 30 years ago had replaced a previous barely articulated consensus. This previous consensus in Englanbd and America had emerged between two periods of mass unreason. The English Revolution, and before that the Wars of Religion, had shown with terrifying clarity the potentially anarchic and violent side of religious enthusiasm; the English drew the conclusion that this must be contained. The French Revolution showed that mass murder in fits of popular enthusiasm could arise without benefit of religion. This is in the back of Gibbon’s mind, its what he brings to Rome. His feelings about Christianity in Rome are formed on his views of Christianity in 16th and 17 century Europe and England.

    We had then a period in which Waller ‘reformed our numbers’, in which Pope was the great poet, and while some said he was not a poet at all ‘if Pope is not a poet, where is poetry to be found?’ seemed a sufficient answer to the suggestion. Hume was the historian and philosopher. Dr Johnson was a rational, painstaking critic, who expected words on the page to be clearly explicable, with imagery and usage which were justifiable in rational terms. Dr Johnson struggling with the Metapysical Poets is one of the most instructive passages to illustrate this sort of approach, and it is interesting how broad a church it is, in intelligent hands.

    The consensus carried with it an approach to feeling and its expression which is totally foreign to us today. Dr Johnson, dying, and in pain, declined opiates, in order to meet his maker ‘with unclouded mind’. In Jane Austen, characters in distress do not have as their instictive reaction to share or express their feelings, but rather to control them and not give way to them. Let me give a graphic social example from living memory. In a coastal village in England, the returning fishing crews would come to the village centre and be greeted by their families. One day, a son did not return. The villagers turned their backs on the mother as she walked home. It was a gesture of respect. We cannot now understand the attitude to feeling that would lead that to be considered obligatory, or for her to welcome it. It was one where excess of feeling was dangerous and in some sense a real threat to the person. It was felt individually, and of course, the expression and acting out of mass feeling was terrifyingly dangerous and to be prevented at all costs. The Riot Act was read, after which the muskets were levelled and fired. Because the alternative was still worse.

    We have gained some things with the passing of the old rationalist consensus, though far less than we popularly think we have. In Victorian England, one finds men and women in their letters having no problem expressing powerful and joyful sexual feeling, though it is expressed inexplicitly and insufficiently anatomically for our tastes. In Middlemarch, Dorothy’s ‘marriage blanche’ is unmistakably conveyed, though the marital bedroom is never described or referred to explicitly. The Victorian era was not as repressed in the ways we popularly think it was, either of feeling or desire. Freud did not discover sexual practice in Vienna, it was all around him, he simply commented on it. Still, if we have gained less than we ordinarily think, we have gained. But we have lost, too. The current consensus is largely false, both in its assumptions, and in its prescriptions. And it results in ‘must read’ lists full of utter garbage – things which are not only not obligatory reading, but which are positively corrupted and corrupting. It seems that our powers of discrimination have been destroyed, and that this is treated as a development to be proud of.

    The fact is, meaning is objective, and value also. Harrold Robbins and the enormous cesspool of similar authors, in which I would include indiscriminately Rand, Puzo, Cozzens, Barth…the list is endless… really is terrible stuff. The great works of the canon really are quality. Hegel and his modern and post modern sucessors were and are complete junk, empiricism really is a proper and useful approach to the world. When Moore ‘proved’ that the external world exists by holding up his hands, he was right. Freud, and the whole cult of therapy and the worship of ‘the unconscious’ is simply the irrational theoretical underpinning of the Age of Hysteria. If you are not prepared to master and understand the canon, you really cannot judge.

    The only thing of substance I regret in the previous post is having omitted The Open Society from essential readings. Popper was perhaps the last flowering of empiricism, and a sane penetrating voice in an era in which the best and brightest spent their energies justifying on varied ideological grounds what turned out to be mass murder on a scale to have made even Robespierre quail.

    If the history of the 20c cannot teach you that value is absolute, and meaning objective, and mass emotion dangerous, there’s no meeting place for conversation. It will just be shouting in the dark. This is what Gibbon and Dr Johnson, and Marvell knew, and what we are desperately trying to forget.

  32. John Creighton

    Since this is a statistics blog this thread kind of relates to this theorem:

    “In social choice theory, Arrow’s impossibility theorem, or Arrow’s paradox, demonstrates that no voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking while also meeting a certain set of reasonable criteria with three or more discrete options to choose from. These criteria are called unrestricted domain, non-imposition, non-dictatorship, Pareto efficiency, and independence of irrelevant alternatives. The theorem is often cited in discussions of election theory as it is further interpreted by the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem.”

  33. Bernie

    Well said. However, I am defintely not forgetting. Where is Edmund Burke?

  34. lance

    Dear Lord, Michael. Why take so long to say “one book’s as good as another.” Why do you set out questions for me to ask as I read? Why should anyone, in your estimation, answer someone else’s questions about a work, everything being subjective? And why on earth would I need a “guide to this” when it is all subjective and personal to me? Deconstructionism is great fun, especially when used as a sword against those you disagree with, but it is ultimately self-defeating.

    Anyway, the only criteria for desert island books would be 1) can I read it repeatedly 2)will it take my mind off my situation. I assume you should ignore useful books, since that is no fun. So, I would want my (1)Bible, KJV (Bible since I am a believer, and KJV since it is the only translation I would want to read over and over for years). Then (2) War and Peace (which I think is maybe a short beginning, then all ending after that, instead of all middle. Moscow burns, the Grand Armee destroyed. And aren’t the two main characters each just two halves of 1 main character?) Then the (3)Brothers Karamazov, (4)Shakespeare (something I keep working on, but the language is tough, and the desert island would give time to read enough to make it smooth, but would the constant re-reading make the wit less sparkling?), some (5)Jack Vance, maybe Complete Dying Earth? (6)Tolkien, maybe Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. A (7)Chesterton and a (8)Wodehouse anthology. Some (9) Dickens, probably David Copperfield. For number 10? The OED is a good fun suggestion, and it would help with the other books, besides just being great fun itself. Could that many books count as one? If I had to choose an abridgment, I don’t think it would rate. Twain? I have enjoyed most of him, but I don’t find myself rereading anything. Probably a good poetry anthology, or how about a good thick coffee table type art collection, a “World’s Great Paintings” sort of thing? How about (10)a good thick James Thurber anthology?

  35. KBK

    Briggs –

    No Beverage, but small magnetic loops are interesting (google mag loop)

    Tack to the wall and use cw at 5 watts or DominoEX at much lower power.

    Short dipoles using capacitive hats at both ends are attractive:
    See current QEX for a portable one, or

    Also, thin wire dipoles bent into a square configuration on the ceiling can work.

    For the island, of course you need metal, salvaged or mined/forged, to do electronics. I had in mind a large Voltaic pile (they were able to run arc lamps for a short time) made of scrap copper, galvanized iron, and cardboard soaked in concentrated sea water feeding a rotary spark gap turned by water power. No need to listen, the ship’s arrival is your response!

  36. JH

    There are so many Chinese or English books to read before I die. There are also many things I want to do before I die!

    One book that I’d like to have with me is The Book of Secrets by Osho. It contains 112 Tantra meditation techniques. I don’t meditate but I find myself amazed by Osho’s tremendous knowledge, wisdom and insights into humanity. I probably would start mediating if I were on a desert island.

    A book of “World’s Great Paintings” sounds wonderful. I enjoy the book Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers. I can spend a long time looking at the illustrations and often find something I didn’t notice before. Well, I would bring drawing pads and pencils.

    Oh, maybe a better question would be, what IT gadgets would you bring? It looks like a solar chargeable Kindle is a must.

    Wittgenstein! Thank you, Rich. In a previous post here, I couldn’t remember the source of a thought experiment relating to the issue of abortion. It is the “vexed case of the violinist” in the book Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments by M. Cohen. A mystery solved.

  37. Tom Vonk


    I rather share your point of view . In this amusing exercice we are on a desert island . Possibly forever .
    Even if hunting crabs , storing chinin and maintaing fire is the main activity in order to insure a maximised survival , there are small time windows where one would like to forget a moment about the darn crabs and put the brain in a non reptile mode .
    Reading being basically such an activity that stimulates neurons to go in internal feed baback loops with the goal to generate a feeling of satisfaction .
    So as the intensity and reason of satisfaction is a totally personal subjective matter , it is obvious that there is no “absolute” measure that would tie some book , any book , to some postulated quality scale .
    The opinions would simply define book partitions broadly isomorphous to brain partitions in the matter of intellectual and cultural activities within the human population .
    Case in point – J.R.R Tolkien .
    The people who don’t like , explain their position in ways which are only variation of the same argument that also used my wife : “It is not even real .”
    Well it is not and that is exactly the point .
    But it is not real in an extremely consistent way (Tolkien checked even “details” like the elf grammar or the time necessary for a Nazgul to travel from A to B) and Tolkien created a rich universe on a cultural/geographical/time scale that has not yet been equalled despite many attempts .
    That provides an intense satisfaction for those of adequate cerebral constitution .
    So yes “One book is as good as another” but never for the same person .

  38. Bernie

    You raise an interesting point. I discussedI agree that Tolkien carefully constructed his world. However, I simply found Lord of the Rings ponderous. My wife, who is a linguist and language freak, hates trek stories, period. My 29 year old daughter, however, still re-reads the thing every year or so. Tolkien certainly demands more than Dan Brown in terms of cerebral constitution, but tastes and gifts differ.

    I found Harry Potter too “juvenile” though Rowling does write extremely fluidly. My wife thinks Rowling is a very good writer and an excellent story-teller. She re-reads the entire series before we see the new movie.

    I think Alan Furst is really effective and does a tremendous job creating atmosphere. My wife finds his books too depressing.

    I love Patrick O’Brian but my wife cannot get into it and prefers Hornblower.

    We both love Kenneth Roberts and Charles Dickens.

    So I guess your final comment holds.

  39. Ari

    I’d add a foreign book to this list, personally: Dream of the Red Chamber is both an incredibly engaging story, as well as one of the greatest achievements in novels. Where I found the classic Japanese literature to be too emotionally removed to be interesting, I found the characters in the book to be engaging, the backdrop to be engrossing, and the writing itself to be spectacular (especially when translated well.)

    I would also add that while Potterverse is quite fun, it’s too full of literary trope for me to ever call it a “must read.” Don’t get me wrong, Potterfans, I’ve read them all. I just know trope when I see it.

    And while I don’t understand why, East of Eden (Steinbeck) has somehow become my “comfort read.” I have no clue why, but I absolutely adore that book. I don’t even particularly enjoy the rest of Steinbeck’s corpus (no more than any other author of the era, that is), but East of Eden for some reason fascinated me and has always been an enjoyable read.

  40. ad

    Just give me 10 P.K. Dick books. Any 10.

  41. j ferguson

    I am astonished that no one has included a copy of “The Junior Woodchuck Manual”. Alone on this island, you will need practical solutions to unforeseen problems. Where else would you get them?

    Concur on Decline and Fall, Aubrey and Maturin, and Tolkein. Wealth of Nations too. Smith is so meticulous. I can’t absorb more than a few pages at a time which I would think a good recommendation for a marooned book.

    I suspect some of you are expecting a short stay. I wonder that some of the suggestions could be read more than twice. OED of course.

  42. j ferguson

    Messed up here, it should be “Junior Woodchuck Guidebook”.

  43. dearieme

    James Hogg, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner – the most powerful novel in English.

  44. j ferguson

    How did “Confessions” come to your attention? I just got through with it and find it a most powerful novel.

    Are there other (possibly obscure) books you can recommend? I ask believing that a worthy book recommendation is one of the greatest gifts.

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