Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded On a Deserted Island

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Previous Top Ten Tuesday Topics

The prospect of being stranded on a desert island is, if I am honest, both extremely unlikely – I am currently self isolating at home because of a covid outbreak in my daughter’s school – and rather appealing… but what sort of books would I take?

Also, being something of an aficionado of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, I am taking it that The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare are givens and would – obviously – be part of any desert island on which I would find myself stranded.

Reviewing the list below before I hit the Publish button, I do notice that there is a definite British bias to it, with one or two exceptions. Perhaps the concept of being stranded far from home would make me crave that connection with home that these books would bring

Whilst length is a consideration here, there is one category I want to mention first:

Books that would remind my of my daughter

The Snow Dragon, Abi Elphinstone

In Griselda Bone’s gloomy orphanage, daydreaming is banned, skipping is forbidden and Christmas is well and truly cancelled. But for Phoebe and her sausage dog Herb, is it possible that, just when things seem at their bleakest, magic awaits in the swirling, snow-filled air? 

This was a gorgeous book and bought for Christmas a couple if years ago, but she refused to read it until last year – a reminder, which might be needed on a desert island, that magic and hope exist.

The Wolves in the Walls, Neil Gaiman

When Lucy hears noises from behind the wall she tries to warn her parents that there are wolves banging about. But her parents don’t listen. When the wolves finally take over the house and Lucy and her family are evicted to live in the garden, her parents realise perhaps they should have listened.

For weeks after first reading this, she wandered about the house banging on walls to see if there were wolves in them!

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear, Kieran Larwood

Podkin is the son of a warrior chieftain. He knows that one day it will be up to him to lead his warren and guard it in times of danger. But then Podkin’s home is brutally attacked, and the young rabbits are forced to flee. The terrifying Gorm are on the rampage, and no one and nowhere is safe.

This series has been a massive hit with her (we finished book 3 this week) and memories of her snuggled into me at night, listening to Podkin’s adventures and his journey from frightened child to hero of legend, would be welcome on the long nights on the island.

Books that would chime with my situation or from which I might get practical advice

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

Moby Dick is the story of Captain Ahab’s quest to avenge the whale that ‘reaped’ his leg. The quest is an obsession and the novel is a diabolical study of how a man becomes a fanatic.

But it is also a hymn to democracy. Bent as the crew is on Ahab’s appalling crusade, it is equally the image of a co-operative community at work: all hands dependent on all hands, each individual responsible for the security of each.

This is a novel I keep returning to over and again in these lists, one of those novels that has embedded itself in my psyche and mind. The characters – Ishmael, Starbuck, Stubb, Queequeg and of course Ahab, and The Pequod itself – and the philosophising and the language. Oh the language.

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

The tale of an English sailor marooned on a desert island for nearly three decades. An ordinary man struggling to survive in extraordinary circumstances, Robinson Crusoe wrestles with fate and the nature of God.

I have a confession: I only read half of this when instructed at University and tried to blag my way through the tutorial afterwards.

It did not work.

But choosing between this and Gulliver’s Travels, I feel that this one might have more practical tips!

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

One boy, one boat, one tiger . . .

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan — and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and best-loved works of fiction in recent years.

Speaking of practical tips, I seem to recall some rather useful ones here including treating seawater, fishing, and of course managing the local wildlife: tigers and man eating trees included.

Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch

Young Jaffy Brown never expects to escape the slums of Victorian London. Then, aged eight, a chance encounter with Mr Jamrach changes Jaffy’s stars. And before he knows it, he finds himself at the docks waving goodbye to his beloved Ishbel and boarding a ship bound for the Indian Ocean. With his friend Tim at his side, Jaffy’s journey will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.

Head into the ocean to capture a dragon? Sure. Why not?

From what I recall the dragon in question was more Komodo dragon than the flying fire-breathing type. But it might be the section after the storm that would be most useful for me.

If only I had a handy source of protein … ahem I mean friend… with me on this island.

Books that would take me somewhere else

The Wolf Hall Trilogy, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy – Wolf HallBring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light – traces the life of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power in Henry VIII’s Tudor England. It offers a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

Yes, a trilogy is definitely cheating – but wait until you see the next entry, it is just shameless! – but Mantel’s writing could transport you to the brutality of Cromwell’s childhood to the opulence of his successes. The sights, the sounds,the tastes… all the (Tudor) world is there!

The Seasonal Quartet, Ali Smith

Discover Ali Smith’s dazzling, once-in-a-generation series, the Seasonal Quartet, a tour-de-force quartet of novels about love, time, art, politics, and how we live right now.

All four instalments of the quartet are available to buy and read in paperback and ebook now: Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer

Theses are exceptional books which take us from Brexit to Covid, that explore art and Dickens and cinema and Shakespeare and poetry and life. And are still witty, funny, moving and thoroughly readable.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Jane Austen called this brilliant work “her own darling child” and its vivacious heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth and her proud beau, Mr. Darcy, is a splendid performance of civilized sparring. And Jane Austen’s radiant wit sparkles as her characters dance a delicate quadrille of flirtation and intrigue, making this book the most superb comedy of manners of Regency England.

This was the novel which I don’t think I was old enough for when I first read it at University. Compared to bleak and muscular Wuthering Heights, it felt pale and anaemic. But being stranded, I might discover what I missed before.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

The year is 1806. centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

Whilst Piranesi was another possible choice, Jonathan Strange pips it to this list just because of its length – and of the Man with the Thistledown Hair. Clarke can create whole worlds with a scattering of words and how better to escape the privations of a stranding.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Against the grey sky the towering tents are striped black and white. A sign hanging upon iron gates reads:

Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn

As dusk shifts to twilight, tiny lights begin to flicker all over the tents, as though the whole circus is covered in fireflies. When the tents are aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign lights up:

Le Cirque des Rêves
The Circus of Dreams

The gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition.
They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.

Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.

Just like Susanna Clarke, Erin Morgenstern is a master of world building and magic – a feat repeated in The Starless Sea and the nighttime magic of the circus, the enchantment and the imagination and the style.

Books to keep my brain going

Ulysses, James Joyce

“Ulysses” chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, June 16, 1904. While the novel appears largely unstructured at first glance it is in fact very closely paralleled to Homer’s “Odyssey”, containing eighteen episodes that correspond to various parts of Homer’s work.

Damn, that summary sounds dry.

In fact, Ulysses is witty, moving and eternal as Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, who “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls”, move around each other in a single day in Dublin. Allusive and challenging, bawdy and lewd, witty and wise, most of it went way over my head when I first read it in my first year at University.

The logic of starting the Literature course with modernism which alludes more than any other genre to texts not yet read also went over my head.

The Complete Chaucer, Geoffrey Chaucer

Begun as an ambitious project by the versatile English courtier, diplomat, philosopher, and author Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, “The Canterbury Tales” follows a group of people on their pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Saint Thomas á Becket. The Prologue introduces all of the pilgrims in great detail, and through these descriptions Chaucer provides the entire spectrum of social classes and professions of his time. When the group stops at an inn and the innkeeper introduces a competition for a free dinner, the pilgrims begin telling each other stories that reflect their stations, genders, purity, corruption, humor, tragedy, cynicism, and innocence. From the noble Knight and his Squire to the spunky Wife of Bath, from the antagonistic Miller and Reeve to the Prioress, Nun, and Pardoner, Chaucer reveals for modern readers a wonderfully vivid picture of medieval life in an impressive array of literary styles that uphold his reputation as the father of English literature. 

Much of what I said about Ulysses can also be said about Chaucer: he is equally allusive, equally witty, equally bawdy! Some of the tales in The Canterbury Tales fell a little flat to an eighteen year old (The Knight’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale), others were wonderful, and the joy of the book was in the depiction of the pilgrims themselves in the Prologues – that was the real treasure! And the wonderful Troilus and Creseyde is tragically under-appreciated in comparison to the Tales: it is even more smart, clever, humane and tragic.


So, simply in terms of page count, these tomes will see me through several weeks on an island! Possibly, their weight may have caused whatever horrific accident had led to my being stranded on an island in the first place!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these. Which have you read? What have I forgotten? It was pretty challenging to keep this down to just 10 – something I signally failed to do, as my list is 11 long, even if we discount the children’s books at the start which would actually mean the most to me!

Upcoming Top Ten Tuesday Themes

  • August 3: Titles or Covers That Made Want to Read/Buy the Book
  • August 10: Secondary/Minor Characters Who Deserve More Love
  • August 17: Favourite Places to Read
  • August 24: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time
  • August 31: Fictional Crushes

23 comments

  1. Some of the books you’ve chosen are on my list too – the Wolf Hall trilogy and Pride and Prejudice – but I also wondered about including Moby Dick, Ulysses and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Choosing just ten is far too hard!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like that you’ve included Chaucer and Shakespeare, you’ve got quite a range on this list! Jonathan Strange is a great pick, it’s a fun story and perfect if you have time on your hands.

    Liked by 1 person

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