Top 10 book choices on Desert Island Discs – from Divine Comedy to War and Peace

The Book List: Every Wednesday Alex Johnson delves into a unique collection of titles

Alex Johnson
Wednesday 20 June 2018 12:58 BST
The tomes chosen by castaways are most commonly classics
The tomes chosen by castaways are most commonly classics (Getty)

Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Iliad/Odyssey by Homer
À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Finding the middle ground: ‘Lord of the Rings’ grabs a spot (Wikimedia Commons/Jackie.lck)

Guests on Desert Island Discs have been choosing their favourite records since Roy Plomley first came up with the format for the radio show in 1942. Not much has changed since then, although one major introduction was allowing the castaway to also pick a book – the first one was actor Henry Kendall in 1951 (he chose Who’s Who in the Theatre, which was also picked by Roy Plomley himself when Eamonn Andrews cast him away in 1958).

Classic touch: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ also makes the cut (PA)

This is the list of the top 10 choices, which could be stretched to 11 if you include the general “dictionary”. It should arguably also include the complete Shakespeare and the bible which everybody is given, although various castaways have refused the bible (Michael Mansfield QC, David Walliams, opera director David McVicar, Tariq Ali and mountain climber Joe Simpson all wanted a bibleless existence). Showjumper Harvey Smith (1971) also refused to pick a book, explaining that he never read, while George Clooney (2003) selected War and Peace “as there may not be toilet paper, and that’s a huge book”.

Foreign correspondent Anthony Grey (1969) slightly bent the rules by asking for the book stall in Victoria station as his luxury. Aaron Hicklin, owner of the One Grand bookshop in Narrowsburg, New York, has taken the concept a stage further. He asks well-known writers, artists and creative minds to choose 10 books they would take to a desert island and then stocks his shelves accordingly (sometimes this causes problems – he had some difficulty in tracking down Sir Thomas Browne’s 1658 Urn Burial selected by artist Raymond Pettibon). As an example, here are novelist Jay McInerney’s 10 desert island best:

Desert Island Books: This shop puts a spin on the classic format (One Grand Books)

Emma by Jane Austen
Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac
Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Ulysses by James Joyce
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

Children’s books are not frequently picked on Desert Island Discs, but in 1993 the Reading and Language Information Centre at the University of Reading contacted various children’s authors asking them which books they would give to children aged 8-10 if they were marooned on a desert island. Shirley Hughes picked Fairy Tales of the British Isles and Treasure Island by RL Stevenson (the most popular choice overall), Anthony Browne went for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Michael Foreman for The Wind in the Willows.

‘A Book of Book Lists’ by Alex Johnson, £7.99, British Library Publishing

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