We’ve all played the intellectual game of what (ever changing finite number) books would you have if you were castaway on a desert island. At least I hope it has remained an intellectual game for everyone and any playing at Robinson Crusoe has only ever been voluntary. We readers thrill to this game don’t we? Our hearts start to beat faster and we feel a little panicked. I can only ever have five books to read for the next twenty years at which point I will surely be rescued by a floating library and then, like a starving person, I will overindulge and that will surely make me ill but I wouldn’t care, it would be totally worth it. And then once recovered I will, to the delight of the crew, entertain them nightly by reciting from memory such gems as the complete works of Jane Austen. And I will perform all the characters too, each one a different voice honed to perfection during my lonely years on the island.
Once returned to civilization I will never leave the ground again. I will become a media sensation to rival Kim Kardashian. An oddity who only ever travels by train. A celebrity who impresses one and all with my prowess at reciting the complete works of William Shakespeare.
That finite number of books haunts us and we try to get around it with huge single volume collected works. So we manage to cheat a little and really have twenty books instead of five, but even twenty books is not enough. The thought makes us just a little bit crazy.
So imagine the gasp I let out over this bit from W.H. Auden:
Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously ‘truer’ than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.
Forget for today the start of that about good readings and bad readings, we’ll get to that tomorrow. Today, let’s focus on the dictionary. Auden’s desert island book is a dictionary. At first I thought, no way man. But it has possibility. You could read the dictionary every week for twenty years and never read the same book twice. Oh yes, all the words in it are the same, but how you read it keeps things fresh. And theoretically, reading a book of words in random order could one day get you the complete works of William Shakespeare or Jane Austen just like a monkey at a typewriter. Except you’d need more than twenty years on the island but at least you would be prepared if that library ship didn’t show up to rescue you.
It’s tempting, taking a dictionary. I don’t think I’d want it to be my only book, but perhaps I might jettison one book for a really good dictionary. And think what an excellent vocabulary I would have when rescued! Yes, that would be something. I could probably get a job heading up the national spelling bee or hire myself out to students or Fortune 500 executives. Yes, I think I will add a dictionary to my desert island book bag.