The Desert Island Conundrum (Literary Edition)
By Rebecca Howard
Tulsa City-County Library
A friend with unrelenting insomnia stumbled upon a little literary gem known as One Grand: Desert Island Books. Their “About Us” description reads: a curated bookstore in which celebrated thinkers, writers, artists, and other creative minds share the ten books they would take to their metaphorical desert island…”
How am I only learning of this now? What could possibly be better than knowing what 10 books Michael Cunningham, Gloria Steinem, or Ta-Nehisi Coates would choose? There are celebrity picks as well, but it’s the authors I’m a little giddy over. Authors ARE my rock stars, after all, and I feel like these lists are giving me a tiny window into their souls.
“Your ten desert island books” is also an exhilarating question for a reader to ponder. Since my friend introduced me to this rabbit hole, I have been thinking of my ten books, and they tend to be titles that were the right book at the right time. There’s nothing more powerful than that combination—when your reading lines up either by purpose or accident to what you need to experience, understand, or learn. So, here’s my stab at ten books that I wouldn’t want to live without, with the caveat that this list is always going to be subject to change.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen There would be no Nora Ephron without Jane Austen. She manages to combine satire, sharp comedy, and romance into a heart-swelling novel that manages to make even the most melancholy among us cheer for love.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly Frankenstein is one of those novels that you probably HAD to read in high school or college, but you SHOULD read again as an older adult. It’s stunning to me that a 19-year old wrote this novel. Writing as part of a Romantic movement that was pushing back against the heedless forces of industrialization, Shelly’s exploration of the dangers of human isolation ring remarkably true to a 21st century reader.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich A lyrical, intricately woven family saga that spans 50 years, this book introduces characters that Erdrich returns to again and again in her novels.
And the Band Played on by Randy Shilts In 1995, I learned my brother was HIV positive, and I checked out this book from the OU library. When I think of formative books, this is always on the list. Written by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts in 1987, this book framed the way we now understand the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It is a testament to the importance of investigative journalism and the need for marginalized people to write their own histories.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson A quirky coming-of-age story about a young lesbian adopted into a Pentecostal English family. This semi-autobiographical novel perfectly blends comedy and tragedy.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham This stunning novel takes place over a 24-hour period in June and follows the internal lives of three women—Virginia Woolf who is working on Mrs. Dalloway in 1923, Laura Brown, a housewife in 1949 Los Angeles, and Clarissa Vaugh who is planning a party for her friend and ex-lover Richard in 1999.
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver If I’m going to be on a desert island, I’m definitely going to need some Mary Oliver. Devotions is the last book she published before her death in 2019. While she did not always receive critical praise, she is widely read and appreciated for her mindful and authentic poems about the natural world. Her poetry reflects my personal beliefs about the sacred.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson This is the newest title on my list, and I’m currently recommending to everyone I know. A poetic, powerful novel about family, generational trauma, and grace. A must read for Tulsans, too.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid Hamid has said that “it is a universal part of the human condition to migrate,” and that he wanted to write a novel that shows how we are all migrants. Exit West is a love story set against the backdrop of mass migration. Instead of border checkpoints, there are doors through which people can enter or exit and transport to another location entirely. An imaginative and timely novel that always sparks important conversations about who we welcome.
The Riverside Shakespeare I recognize that taking the complete works of Shakespeare may be a bit of a cheat for this question but hear me out. I don’t want any Riverside Shakespeare, I want to take the one I own: copyright 1974, which belonged to my brother and which I used in two semesters of Shakespeare. Really, this may be the only book you need on a desert island, since it has comedies, histories, tragedies, romances, and sonnets. Imagine being rescued from this desert island and speaking only in unrhymed iambic pentameter.
I hope this causes you to think about your own ten books. If you ever find yourself in need of a good book list (and really, who doesn’t), head over to One Grand Books to find what books made your favorite musician, author, director, or chef’s list.