The Spindle Imp by Alida Sims Malkus
I’m going to take this assignment very literally and imagine, somewhat morbidly, that I have come to find myself stranded on a desert island with no human companionship for the rest of my days. My first choice, therefore, is sentimental: one to remind me of my childhood, and of my mother, who introduced me to this book.
Its full title is The Spindle Imp, and Other Tales of Maya Myth and Folklore, which is about as good a description as I can give. It was first published in 1931, and has been out of print for decades. I don’t know how my mother came to own it. It contains beautiful, strange illustrations that infected my seven-year-old dreams, and somewhat horrifying stories of imperilled children that would probably make it unpublishable today. I loved it.
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
First of all, this is a nice fat book, one that would take me a while to read. Second of all, O’Connor is one of those authors whose prose is always shifting in unexpected directions. I get something different out of her work each time that I read it, and this is an important quality in a book that I will have to read over and over again for however many years I manage to survive (probably not many; I’m not that hardy). In order to better my chances, my next selection is:
Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart
I once had to use this book as a primary source for a high-school research project. First published in 1914, Letters of a Woman Homesteader tells the story of a young mother whose young husband is run over by a train. After this happens, she decides to leave life in the city for work on a ranch in Wyoming. Although Wyoming does not offer a direct parallel to this hypothetical desert island in terms of climate or vegetation, I could probably learn a thing or two about survival from Stewart, or, at the very least, pluck and determination.
The Once and Future King, by T.H. White
Reading this retelling of the Arthurian legends always makes me feel sort of romantic and uplifted. I imagine those are feelings I will not have much reason to experience anymore, once I am cut off entirely from civilisation.
Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
Woolf very precisely captures the little unkindnesses and cruelties that pass between human beings, and this would make me feel better about being alone forever. On the other hand, she also writes more powerfully about love and friendship and family and pleasure than nearly anyone, so then I’d be sad again.
The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell
See what I did there? I cheated. Four books in one. You can’t stop me. Reading any one of these books about love and corruption in wartime Alexandria is like experiencing another life, or having an out-of-body experience; reading all four in a row is like acquiring the ability to time-travel, or read minds.
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Anyone who doesn’t include Ulysses on this list is trying too hard. The correct answer to this question is always Ulysses.