Desert Island Reads

The ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood has a miniature bookstore in their lobby curated by One Grand Books. They ask actors, artists, writers and other creatives to pick their ten “desert island reads” and explain their choices.

Browsing through these selections is a great way to kill time while you wait for your movie to start. Some of the lists are better than others, though. It’s clear that some curators chose books designed to impress, where others actually selected books they loved and wanted to share.

Of course, that isn’t really surprising. Picking your all-time top-ten favorites has always been catnip for pretentious pop-culture know-it-alls, especially when they can share them in mixed company. Knowing that everyone will see that you picked Infinite Jest is irresistible to a certain kind of person.

Even still, it sounded like a fun challenge, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I tried to approach it as though these might be the only books I could read for years, or possibly the rest of my life. Hopefully I avoided picking anything too pretentious.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I think I could be happy with nothing but Discworld books on my imaginary desert island, but if I could pick only one from the series, it would be this book about Sam Vimes and the Night Watch. Pratchett was one of the most humane, hilarious and incisive authors I’ve ever read, and Night Watch is one of his masterpieces.
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. This is another case where I’d probably be happy with nothing but an entire series of books. Barring that, I’d settle for this, the first Culture novel, which sets the tone for the series and kicks things off with a widescreen action-adventure that still has something to say about the universe and the people in it.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Mitchell is a genre chameleon of the highest order, and this, his most well-known book, is ambitious and showy in all the right ways. He completely switches styles for the half-dozen nesting stories that form this stunning novel, but that doesn’t detract from the amazing storytelling and characters throughout.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Epic, exciting and hilarious, this book jumps back and forth in time from World War II to the present-day. It explores the thesis that nerds and hackers have been around for a very long time, and that they’ve always changed the world, sometimes in very strange and unexpected ways.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. This is a great, very weird, very funny book, overstuffed with fantastic characters, killer ninjas, a surrealist apocalypse, and a mind-bending twist. Harkaway reads a bit like Douglas Adams’s comic sensibilities crossed with William Gibson’s future-shock.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I read this series so many times when I was a kid. It’s a foundational work for me, and nobody does that particular brand of madcap satire nearly as well. I’m well past overdue for a re-read.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This rambling shaggy-dog story about an ex-con who gets mixed up in the world of forgotten gods was one of the first Gaiman books I read, and it still stands up after all that time. I love spending time in this world with these characters.
Middlemarch by George Eliot. I loved this sprawling story about small-town British life. I read it after watching the first season of Downton Abbey because I was looking for something that scratched that same itch. It probably helped that I listened to an amazing audiobook version, but I definitely fell in love with the characters.
The Dead Zone by Stephen King. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and this is the book that I always recommend to people who’ve never read his stuff. At heart, it’s a thriller with a vein of dark fantasy running through it. Although the horror elements are there, they’re fairly low-key, so it’s a good entry point for the squeamish. Really, though, it’s actually a character study about a good man put in an impossible situation (a theme common to King’s works).
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. When I finished this book, I sat there stunned for a solid few minutes. Bester builds a mind-bending sci-fi adventure on top of the loose outlines of The Count of Monte Cristo. Reading this made me sit up at attention more than once.