Build Your Desert Island Book List

In the early spring of my tenth grade year, my friend Mack and I convinced our parents to allow us to backpack the length of a coastal National Park. The trip covered a distance of 43 miles and lasted 4 days. We had the time of our lives!

The nights were brutally cold in early May. We woke each morning to frozen puddles and frost on the leaves of the trees. The cold deterred most other backpackers, and we felt as though we had the whole park to ourselves. Both Mack and I are quiet, by nature, but we talked endlessly on that trip. We talked about everything that mattered to our 16-year-old selves.

One thing that mattered deeply to both of us was a love of books. At some point during the trip, we developed the idea of a “Desert Island Book List.” The idea is simple. Imagine that you are going to be left on a desert island for a very long time. You can only bring one box of books with you. What would they be?

We decided that the box which would carry our Desert Island Book List could only contain 25 books, and the purpose of the books in the box was pure entertainment. (Before deciding on this last point, we were distracted by the issue of how many books should be budgeted for topics like religion and wilderness survival.)

If you love to read, the idea of narrowing your reading possibilities down to only 25 titles for an unspecified, but vast amount of time brings up some challenging issues. The books you choose must cover most or all of the genres you love. They must also be books that you will enjoy reading and re-reading many times. Both Mack and I had multiple favorite series. In order to best use our limited number of Desert Island Book List titles, we were, eventually, forced to select our favorite titles from these series, because there simply wasn’t room to include every book in the series.

Over the years since that backpacking trip with Mack, I have continued to regularly write and revise my personal Desert Island Book List. It ends up slightly different nearly every time I write it. Some changes are due to me discovering new wonderful books. Other changes reflect changes in my personality and tastes. 

As an adult I have come to realize that this process is more than just a fun way for a book lover to while away boring meetings at work (while pretending to take careful notes). In fact, the desert island book list is a good way to keep track of my “book priorities.”

Buying books is one of my anti-frugal vices. I love bookstores, and I love to be surrounded by books. So, I often give in to temptation and am regularly forced to weed through my personal library to make room for new arrivals. My Desert Island Book List serves as a kind of benchmark. As I weed through my library, I ask myself how close each book is to winning a place in my Desert Island Book List. 

Over time, I have added multiple extensions to my Desert Island Book List (just in case the mysterious people who are forcing me into exile allow me to take more than one box of books). Despite the fact that I love them, many books on these lists aren’t worth owning at this point, because I am unlikely to read them frequently enough for them to justify taking up the limited space on my bookshelf. If I ever get around to building some new (and larger) bookshelves, that may change.

In my opinion, there are five categories of books worth owning:

  1. Comfort books – the ones I can read, reread, and keep enjoying. These include my Desert Island Book List, as well as a shelf of cartoon books that help me laugh away stress and worry.
  2. Reference books – books that help me understand important, practical things
  3. Memory books – gifts from loved ones or books that represent a meaningful time or experience
  4. Ambition books – books that I want to or feel I need to read. It’s important to limit how many of these I hold onto, as they tend to pile up.
  5. Beautiful books – books that are enjoyable to look at, on and off the shelf.

The more I think about it, the more practical the idea of the Desert Island Book List becomes. Being abandoned, alone, on a desert island is not the only (or most plausible) reason that a person might wish to own a very limited number of books. Perhaps you live in a small apartment. Perhaps you move frequently. Twenty-five books turns out to be a surprisingly convenient quantity. My Desert Island Booklist fits neatly on a single shelf and fits neatly into a single, moderately-sized cardboard box that is easy to carry.

I think it is worthwhile for any book lover to create his or her Desert Island Book List. Even if you can’t think of a practical reason to do so, the process is fun. Try it! To inspire you, I will share my own list.

1Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short StoriesAgatha ChristieAdventure
2The Three MusketeersAlexandre DumasAdventure
3The Complete Sherlock HolmesArthur Conan DoyleAdventure
4The Winds of WarHerman WoukAdventure
5War and RemembranceHerman WoukAdventure
6The HobbitJ.R.R. TolkienAdventure
7BowdrieLouis L’AmourAdventure
8Treasure IslandRobert Louis StevensonAdventure
9The Green MileStephen KingAdventure
10Cheaper By the DozenFrank Gilbreth Jr.Humor
11All Creatures Great and SmallJames HerriotHumor
12All Things Bright and BeautifulJames HerriotHumor
13The First Rumpole OmnibusJohn MortimerHumor
14The Second Rumpole OmnibusJohn MortimerHumor
15The Third Rumpole OmnibusJohn MortimerHumor
16A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s CourtMark TwainHumor
17The World of Jeeves: A Jeeves and Wooster OmnibusP.G. WodehouseHumor
18The Time Traveler’s WifeAudrey NiffeneggerRomance
19The African QueenC.S. ForesterRomance
20Jane EyreCharlotte BronteRomance
21RebeccaDaphne du MaurierRomance
22The Sun Also RisesErnest HemingwayRomance
23A Farewell to ArmsErnest HemingwayRomance
24The Blind AssassinMargaret AtwoodRomance
25PastoralNevil ShuteRomance

What would you include in your Desert Island Book List? Let us know in the comments section.

Written by James


6 replies »

  1. Oh my goodness I love this idea but have no idea how to get it down to 25 books. I know that classics would feature prominently, but I’m absolutely going to borrow this idea for a post. I would have to take a cookbook to my desert island though…or two…maybe.


    • Hello Jo! Thank you for reading my post. It does sound daunting, doesn’t it? Don’t worry. There are no right or wrong answers and absolutely no judgement from me. (My list is full of comfort reads. I don’t think anyone considers Rumpole to be classic literature…) I can’t wait to read your Desert Island Book List. I hope to learn about some great new reads! – James

      Liked by 1 person

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