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Readers recommend their desert island books

Stephanie Merry

THE WASHINGTON POST – When book critic Michael Dirda attempted to pare down his list of desert island books to fewer than 100 titles, he found that constraints were constructive.

It was much easier to whittle his list to 66 when he was looking solely at “books that through their prose, ideas or storytelling, trigger in me a deep sense of contentment and well-being”. He also opted to focus only on 20th-Century prose by English-language authors. “Needless to say,” he wrote recently, “my final list is unapologetically personal and unofficial.” In other words: Don’t get in a huff about these choices.

But of course, amid the readers who were excited to reserve Dirda’s selections at their local libraries, there were plenty of commenters who were shocked at which titles were included and appalled by what was left out. One thing nearly all had in common was a passionate belief in their own picks.

Here’s a selection of those recommendations.

Some readers echoed Dirda’s choices. “My husband and I have always remembered happily that we read The Wind in the Willows aloud to one another on our honeymoon 60 years ago,” wrote reader Mainesail, who appreciated the inclusion of Kenneth Grahame’s novel.

Commenter guicci gave a hearty “hear, hear” to such picks as Robert K Merton’s On the Shoulders of Giants and Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

A number of readers complained about writers that were excluded, even if some didn’t exactly fit into Dirda’s parameters: Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. Of Twain, blunoser wrote, “His books and essays are my standard devices for waiting areas, funk times, or just (when I’m) in need of wit and wisdom in life’s daily trials. He holds up brilliantly!”

Reader ormestra found a spot for the Great Expectations author on their own exacting list: “Complete works of Charles Dickens (except Pickwick and any of the Christmas stuff).

Complete works of Jane Austen. Complete works of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Complete works of Hilary Mantel. Complete works of George Eliot. (Victor) Hugo’s Les Miserables, (Albert) Camus’ The Plague, and – oh why not – complete Rougon-Macquart cycle of Emile Zola in French and in English, along with a French/English dictionary. Complete works of José Saramago. All the Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey novels. And AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner. That ought to keep me occupied (and happy) for some time.”

It wasn’t only the lost classics that troubled readers. One, 551972, asked, “You’re off the grid. There’s no one to impress. Where are the mystery novels and romantic suspense?” Concurred Annie Anne: “Where’s Harry Bosch?”

And while NickinCC was overwhelmingly positive on Dirda’s picks, he had a few substitutions: “The Alexandria Quartet (by Lawrence Durrell) (twice-read, would read again … next year) for Lolita; Pillars of Hercules (by Paul Theroux – would relish reading again) for The Literary Lif’ (admittedly, unread); and any David Ignantius book I have not yet read for any spy or intrigue novel on Dirda’s list, especially Midnight in the Garden of Good
and Evil.”

HowAboutSomeCommonSense had “way too many to list,” but said that they would bring several books by each of these authors: James Baldwin, Don Winslow, Stephen King, Erik Larson and HarukiMurakami.

Reader jrrsunvalley wasn’t the only one with these sentiments: “You include Proust, but no Toni Morrison? Unbelievable.” And other readers made up for what they saw as a dearth of female authors with recommendations for books by Joan Didion, Rachel Cusk and Lucia Berlin, among others.

Worry Clinic submitted a few entries they have read multiple times – and will read again: “Like any novelist who has written a million books, PG Wodehouse has delivered some clunkers. However, his very best have helped me get through some tough times. The Code of the Woosters, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves are priceless.

Barbara Tuchman (the best popular history writer ever): The Guns Of August, The Proud Tower and The Zimmerman Telegram. Finally, my favorite novel, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.”

And WonderfulWorld also used “books I have read more than once” as a litmus test to come up with a line-up that included North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë; These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer; and “any of the E Nesbit books I can cram into the box!”

Perhaps commenter francoiscat put it best: “I love reading other people’s lists! It’s so random.” Isn’t it? And so delightful.

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