What books would you take to a desert island?
I’ll admit it: my Desert Island Books list tends to favor the classics (which, let’s face it, are classics for a reason).
But, if I were to get stuck god knows how long on a sand atoll in the middle of nowhere with neither access to the internet nor – perhaps more importantly – small umbrella drinks, I would also want a lighter meal. Well, “lighter” is unfair; I mean books that don’t necessarily leave you thinking about the deeper intricacies of the human condition, but are just a great story and an exciting read.
Many years ago, in my fearless youth, I took a 20 hour Greyhound bus trip through the Midwest to Boston. I desperately needed something to read on the trip, to avoid boredom. A book can also be used to fend off those particular individuals who appear to inhabit Greyhound buses on long journeys; you know, those who sit next to you and for the next few hours tell you, without solicitation, their life story, their troubles, the sordid details of their divorce (s), and what internal organs they had withdrawn … or who insist on explaining to you why it is absolutely essential that you let their particular version of God come into your life, now, today, before it is too late to save your ravaged soul. peach.
Anyway, among the meager offerings from the little newsagent at the bus terminal was James Clavell’s “Shogun”. I opened this 1,150-page giant shortly after we left, and about 700 pages later, I looked up to see that we were already entering Boston. That is the power of a good page turner.
There are few pleasures in life as delicious as a book you can’t wait to come back to – books you devour in a few sessions and occupy your thoughts in between. Most of Clavell’s historical novels on Asia fall into this category, and none more so than “Shogun”, the first in the series. It takes place in the feudal society of Japan in 1600 and tells about the ascension to the shogunate of a lord named Toranaga. This fictional character is loosely based on a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu, who in 1603 became a shogun (essentially a military dictator who was in theory subservient to the emperor but was, in reality, the main power of the country).
The central character of the novel, witness to the rise to power of Toranaga, is an English maritime pilot named John Blackthorne. And again, Blackthorne is based on a true pilot named William Adams, who survived a shipwreck, was taken prisoner and, like Blackthorne, became a close and influential adviser to the shogun.
These are the basics of the story; but oh, what a glorious story it is – rarely has history come so alive. Clavell gives us plenty of historical detail, as well as a generous portion of sex, violence, and political intrigue to keep us moving forward. “Shogun” contains gruesome and predictable descriptions of medieval brutality, including the most memorable – and I really I wish it hadn’t – torture scene I’ve ever read. But the depth of the novel is unmatched; it gives the reader a fascinating picture of 17e Feudal Japan of the century and does it with an enthralling history that is captivating from start to finish.
One might think that the novel revolves around a racist stereotype; but in reality, Clavell portrays his westerners as crude barbarians. They have no manners, and they stink to the sky because they don’t believe in cleanliness. Clavell shows the Japanese need for harmony and accurately captures the code of honor of bushido and the way of life of the samurai. It’s a foreign perspective to the western world, but it’s quite Japan as it was, and to some extent still is at times.
The intelligent Blackthorne starts out as a typical “barbarian,” but gradually comes to appreciate the Japanese way of seeing the world (though there are still aspects he doesn’t agree with). He himself becomes a samurai. Clavell brilliantly shows the gradual transformation of Blackthorne’s attitude, from instinctive xenophobic rejection to gradual assimilation and appreciation of many aspects of culture.
Of course, not all page turners are fiction. To give just one example: Over the past year, I have looked through most of the books written by Ben MacIntyre. Most of them involve actual spy stories, and all of them are outstanding reads. MacIntyre researches his subjects extensively and presents the story with compelling detail, memorable character portraits, and a strong sense of absurdity (of which it turns out there is a lot in the espionage world. ).
His work includes, among many other titles, Treason, the extraordinary story of the British network of double agents – some of whom are eccentrics – who tricked the Nazis into believing that the D-Day landing would take place in Calais, not Normandy; Operation Minced Meat, in which the British successfully executed a ridiculously improbable plan of planting false papers on a corpse deposited off the coast of Spain to deceive the Germans at the site of the invasion of southern Europe; and The spy and the traitor, which is, for me, the best of his books.
The latter title details the career of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel whom the British led as a double agent for years, and who was ultimately betrayed by American mole Aldrich Ames. To say the book is exciting is an understatement; he turns the pages as much as the best spy novels, from Le Carré to the bottom (especially since it is real). Remarkably, the British managed to exfiltrate Gordievsky out of Russia, and the details of this absurdly unlikely operation will keep you reading late into the night.
What books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at [email protected]
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.