Desert Island Books


It’s impossible to choose what you’d take to a desert island – where do you start? I’ve picked a starter-pack of ten terrific books, but the moment I jotted them down I wanted completely different novels. One day I must sort out all my books into ‘read’ and ‘yet to read’.

King Dido

Alexander Baron

It’s out in a new edition, so now there’s no excuse…Hackney-raised Baron was born toward the end of one world war and served in another. His epic novel of Edwardian Jewish gangs, ‘King Dido’, is a tale that outlines, with infinite care, the link between poverty and crime.  Baron is the master of likeable anti-heroes, and the final pages are utterly heartbreaking, and carry tragic resonance. ‘King Dido’ is one of the greatest and least read novels about London ever written. Baron’s war trilogy is brilliant but I wouldn’t want to reread it.


George Orwell

Why? Because despite the grimness of this totalitarian dystopia it eventually transcends its status as a Dire Warning and has a way of making you feel grateful to be alive. The key moment for me is when Winston hears the prole singing as she hangs out clothes and realises he can never be so unburdened. It’s a book I return to regularly.

The Unfortunate Captain Despard

Mike Jay

Jay’s non-fiction books illuminate forgotten corners of British history in beautifully crystal prose, and he somehow manages to make each of his subjects play out like thrillers. Here the scene is the war on terror, 1798. Captain Despardfought beside Nelson, married a black woman, freed the slaves of Belize and was the last man to be hanged, drawn and quartered, in a climax that shows why the British revolution never happened. It’s superbly erudite and often jaw-dropping proof that fact is stranger than fiction.

Alone In Berlin

Hans Fallada

When life gets bad, at what point do you decide to strike back? A middle-aged Berlin couple go along with Hitler’s outrages until they decide to take affirmative action. Without even discussing the matter with each other they start writing inflammatory postcards and leaving them around the city, but the police soon give chase. A true story that feels like breathless fiction. Avoid the dull movie version.

Our Mutual Friend

Charles Dickens

My obvious choice for Dickens would be ‘Bleak House’ but this is an astoundingly rich novel about a city founded, quite literally, on filth and corruption. It starts with a suspicious death on the Thames and rattles through the whole of London society with strong women in the lead roles, but what wrongfooted me most was the comedy. I defy you not to laugh at the ghastly dinner party held for the Veneerings, which proves that when it comes to greed very little has changed in the world.


Mervyn Peake

My ultimate desert island book. It’s impossible to recommend this without the first volume, ‘Titus Groan’, a staggering achievement that some feel claustrophobic and exhausting, but give it a chance; it’s rewarding and may stay with you forever, as it has with me. A vast crumbling castle built on arcane rituals, an upstart kitchen boy determined to bring it down, a beautiful but vulnerable girl, a strange, inverted reworking of ‘Hamlet’ and a feat of imagination rarely, if ever, equalled. My father, who never countenanced such books, adored it. Neil Gaiman is involved in a new TV version.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady

EM Delafield

Delafield’s take on life is dry and very English. Her best books are autobiographical; This chronicles her daily life as she tries to run a family and handle the housekeeping while maintaining a  smidgen of dignity. Written in deceptively relaxed shorthand, it’s a Pooterish charmer that shows how easily Delafield could communicate unspoken feelings of embarrassment and annoyance. She celebrates life with grace, endurance and quiet optimism.

The Crystal World

JG Ballard

Ballard wrote four early novels in which our planet is menaced, and they proved prescient; climate change, heat and floods featured in them 40 years before they happened, but this is a change of pace. The African jungle starts to crystallize, trees encrusting with huge jewels, crocodiles in glittering skins waddling downriver. The world may be doomed, but in an unexpectedly beautiful way. Ideas from it were clearly used in the film ‘Annihilation’.

A High Wind In Jamaica

Richard Hughes

Some British children living in Jamaica survive a hurricane and are sent back to England, but are captured by pirates. It’s an adventure about children, but certainly not aimed at them. Because in a turnabout, it’s the pirates who have to worry…what starts as merely masterful storytelling becomes something dreamlike and haunting; a cusp-of-adulthood novel like no other, it’s not a book you easily forget.

Sébastien Japrisot

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun

Well, I had to have one crime novel. Was there ever a better title to sum up the world of the noir thriller? The narrative delivers all the key genre elements in a plot of audacious simplicity. A beautiful young woman impulsively drives off in her boss’s white Thunderbird, heading for the South of France, but locals react as if she had made the same journey the night before. Then she finds a dead body in the boot…this has a brilliant wrong-footing twist that plays fair and is even alluded to in the title!

8 comments on “Desert Island Books”

  1. Brooke says:

    If for some reason, you are planing any time on a desert island, may I suggest the Navy Seals Survival Kit as the first item to choose. Without it, you’re not likely to survive long enough to read any books on your list. Unless you own the island–nice ones available around Greece –going rate about 3M (USD). Yacht for commuting not included.

  2. Graham says:

    I’ll have to read the Japrisot. I’ve only read one called something like “The Sleeping Car Express Murder” which was very good, and I’ve seen the film of “One Deadly Summer” (I think it was). I am glad that I’m not the only one impressed by Ballard’s The Crystal World. It was a long time ago but the feeling of almost fairy-tale strangeness stuck with me. That one and Aldiss’ Hothouse are among the few New Wave sci-fi novels I’ve read and both are excellent.

  3. Denise Treadwell says:

    I would want to take the twenty volumes of the Oxford English dictionary, it would keep me busy, a word a day and put it in a sentence. It would have to be a concise version I suppose. I am not sure that I could be happy with just ten books. It would drive me nuts. It boggles the mind that you could have those ten books with you. ..

  4. Denise Treadwell says:

    Ask what we would choose?

  5. admin says:

    I’m not going to take the Navy Seals Survival Kit!
    1. It’s a desert island.
    B. I’m not taking advice from aquatic mammals with guns.

  6. snowy says:

    1) If it is a desert island*, you’ll be dead in a week anyway**. I’d ask for an upgrade to an island that is deserted instead.

    B) Aquatic animal with guns don’t present much of a threat, (1) they never read the instruction manuals anyway, pages stick together under water and (2) firing a gun with a barrel full of water rarely ends well for the organism nearest the explode-y bit. [Though I would watch out for the tropical fish that swims up your willy, that has got to sting!]

    [* This has always bothered me slightly, they have been knocking out this radio show since 1942 and nobody has twigged that they are being consigned to a slow and painful death.]

    [** Unless it (a) rains and (b) you have a massive big hat to catch it in.]

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, you’d better hope your deserted island isn’t Bikini or its like. I know, Bikini was an atoll. How light minded of us to give its name to a sexy swimming outfit.
    There was a collection of stories, dated jokes, and etc. called Desert Island Decameron which we had as bathroom reading at home. I found a copy for myself later but the jokes are really painfully dated. Choices for island reading require periodic updating.
    My copy of Forgotten Authors arrived today so I have something to read and annotate while waiting for Hall of Mirrors.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    There can’t be many empty desert islands left, can there? The BBC has been sending people to them for decades, so there are islands full of nothing but piles of records – nothing to play them on, mind, and unread copies of the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. That’s where your licence fee goes – the BBC have been buying tiny islands and tropical atolls with it. And it’s all 100% true. (Although that last sentence was a lie.)

Comments are closed.