Forget Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, James Patterson and all the other brand names on the best-seller lists. A miniature history of world literature will fit equally well into your beach bag. Here are some titles guaranteed to keep you fully engaged and impress the other folks on the island.
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
These got Western Civ started; might as well keep it going! The two epics are very different. The Iliad portrays the nine-year battle of Troy as a series of individual battles. The sorrow and pity of war has never been as well portrayed. It’s told in the most elevated of all voices and yet, its concerns always stay close to the human heart. If ever there was a cast of characters that were epic, this one has it: Paris, Priam, Hektor, Odysseus, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Akhilles, Patroklos, Ajax and old whatsername, Helen of Troy. The Odyssey follows Odysseus on a trip around the world, encountering (and surviving his encounters with) a range of gods and monsters. Meanwhile, his patient wife, Penelope, waits for him and fends off suitors who want her hand and her land. Both books are worth reading if only for the moment Odysseus’s dog, Argos, recognizes his master when he finally returns. And then the faithful pet dies.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Hell, purgatory, and paradise who could ask for anything more? Dante grew up in the city-state of Florence, and he strove to reach the top of the society that bore him. But in the political battles that tore Florence apart in the late 13th century, Dante was expelled from his home (1302) and forced to be a gypsy-exile-scholar for the rest of his life, during which he tried to make sense of this cataclysm. In the poems that came to be known as The Divine Comedy, Dante goes on a guided tour (his guide is the great Roman poet Virgil) of, well, those three places. The Inferno is best known: that’s because as the cliche goes, it’s easier to imagine hell than heaven. Dante makes the poem sort of an autobiography, putting many of his enemies and rivals in the heated place and elevating Beatrice, the love of his life, to the apex of divine realization in the Paradiso. The story remains one of the most sustained examples of the sublime in any language.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)
Self-delusion is one of the greatest themes a writer can wade into. It’s at once what is funny about people and very tragic about them. The good don, also known as the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, believes that the era of knights and damsels and dragons and such still exists, and that he can win glory and fame by defending the weak and attacking the evil. His sidekick, Sancho Panza, tries to talk him out of his deluded ways, but a combination of nearsightedness and a simple refusal to believe all available evidence makes Quixote impregnable to good sense. It’s a huge collection of stories, many of them taken from Cervantes’ own painful, eventful life, but it feels like a novel because it has a great, arching coherence to it. It gives us a great hero, a great sadness and much laughter in the bargain.
Shakespeare’s Collected Works
Without them, you might as well not have anything else. If you take this with you to your desert island, you will have the company of hundreds of characters trooping across the stage of life, matching wits, swords, passions and words. You’ll see Hamlet in the graveyard, Othello in the bedroom, Julius Caesar on the ground, Sir John Falstaff on the battlefield (hiding), Juliet up there and Romeo down there. You’ll encounter hundreds of lines and phrases you didn’t know you knew (”Oh, that’s where that’s from?”). And in the sonnets you will meet one of the most compelling and perplexing triangles ever created: the speaker, the beloved gentleman and the Dark Lady. And running through it all like a rainbow river: the unconscious, superlative music of Shakespeare’s poetry. We’re not saying it’s any good. But it may help you while away the time before getting rescued.
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
“Jack the Dripper” was the leading artist of the pioneer New York school. He was a tortured, monosyllabic, alcohol-dependent soul, swinging between sensitivity and machismo, elation and despair. At his best he produced magnificent work that needs to be seen on a large scale to fully appreciate the passionate, heroic and monumental nature of his achievement. When he rolled his canvases out on the floor and he stood in the middle of them with a large can of house paint, he was literally and physically part of his work, thereby achieving an integration of the artist’s personality and the activity of artistic creation that had never before been realized with such expressive freedom.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
There are a few novels and this is certainly one that are so huge you can’t pin a meaning on them. You can find lots and lots of meanings, but not a single strand. The Brothers K is the best of one of the very best writers ever. As many of the greatest literary works do, this book concerns the cataclysmic forces within a family: father Fyodor Karamazov and his sons Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha. This huge novel has that obsessive (and obsessing), dry-mouthed, feverish intensity for which Dostoevsky is famous. Again and again, we keep colliding with the profoundest themes in life: What are good and evil? Can human sin be redeemed? Is love possible? Where, if anywhere, is God? (In this regard, the high point of the novel is the segment titled The Grand Inquisitor, an interrogation of Christ come back to earth.) Reading this book feels like living an intense, maddening, poetic life.