The Mail – 19 Aug 1939
Recently the Seafarer’s Education Service offered a prize for an essay on the old subject, though without the usual reference to a desert island.
Officers were invited to submit essays on the subject “If you were restricted to three books, which would you choose, and why?”
Three is evidently the magic number in relation to books. Nobody, certainly, is ever allowed to take more than three books with him to a desert island, and it seems that only the same number of books are permitted on a board ship.
The number, to my mind, is too small, for among intelligent readers—in the English-speaking world, at any rate—the choice of the first two is almost automatic. No one except an eccentric or a man who disliked literature would make the first two choices anything but the Bible and Shakespeare.
In the first place, if one were restricted to three books, one would have to have books which it would be possible to read again and again. Even the most brilliant detective story would pall after a few readings, and I doubt whether Dumas himself—one of Mr. Chamberlain’s favorite authors—ever wrote a book into which it is possible to dip day after day, month after month, without becoming sick of the sight of it.
If we are to have so few as three books, moreover, they must be books that contain, not only great reading matter but a great quantity of reading matter and not only a great quantity but a great variety.
In these respects the Bible and Shakespeare have no rivals. They have as much variety as life itself, and between them they appeal to every mood likely to be experienced by an ordinary human being.
The prizewinning essayist in an admirable essay has given his reasons for choosing these two books. He then goes on to name his third choice, and most readers, I fancy, will be surprised by it.
It is an omnibus volume of the works of O. Henry. Good as O. Henry is, I doubt whether he would last, unspoiled, after the twentieth re-reading.
For myself, I should have chosen the infinitely readable Boswell’s “Johnson.” with the “Tour to the Hebrides” bound up in the same volume.
There are, I believe, good men and women who cannot read Boswell. If you like him, however, there is no other book in English after Shakespeare which you can take up so often with the certainty of being entertained as richly as at the first reading.
Another “book-choosing competition” has just been announced by the National Book Council. Out of a list of 50 books, readers are asked to choose the best 12 to present to a friend on his twenty-first birthday.
Here the competitor is not asked to choose books on merely literary grounds. He has to think of the needs of a young friend supposed to possess none of the books mentioned, and to consider, for example, the relative desirability of giving him an Atlas of the World or “Wutherland Heights.”
Several of the books on the list seem to me to be indispensable. In the present state of the world one must have an atlas, an, in any state of the world, what is home without a dictionary or an encyclopaedia?
Then there are the old, essential books—the Bible, Shakespeare, and Boswell. We have now chosen six of the 50, and, if we include (as I think we must), “The Oxford Book of English verse,” we have chosen seven.
If we go further and include (as I think we must) Mr. H. G. Wells’s “Outline of History,” we have chosen eight.
This leaves us with only four more books to choose for our young friend, and I think we may discard Marx’s “Capital” and Mr. J. W. Dunne’s “The New Immortality” as too difficult for the ordinary reader.
We have left, however, “Pickwick Papers,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Mr. Bernard Shaw’s “Complete Plays,” Blake, Keats and Lamb.
And if our young friend has modern tastes we have to decide whether to send him a book by Mrs. Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Mr. E. M. Forster, or Mr. Somerset Maugham.
Then there are those brilliant travel books, Miss Freyra Stark’s “The Valley of the Assassins” and Mr. Ommaney’s “South Latitude.”
In real life, of course, one would not dream of sending the same 12 books to everybody who was 21 years old, but would consult the tastes of the individual to whom we were giving a birthday present.