Books You'd Vote Off the Desert Island

So, we’re all familiar with the game where you try to come up with 10 books you’d take with you to a desert island where you’re doomed to spend the rest of your days – it’s a way of forcing definition of a (personal) canon by whatever criteria you can muster.

Well, here is a neat attempt to do the reverse: define which books should be thrown out of the canon – books you’d vote off the island.

His ten to toss:

White Noise by Don DeLillo
Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

It’s an interesting list. My reactions:

If I were making a list, I’d avoid throwing out books that are generally not considered the best work of a great author. Come out swinging against To the Lighthouse or Between the Acts or Mrs. Dalloway, not against Jacob’s Room; attack The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying, not Absalom, Absalom. A Tale of Two Cities is a bit different; though nobody thinks it’s one of Dickens’ best (and it would just be stupid to attack Bleak House or David Copperfield), it’s part of the high school English curriculum canon, so perhaps it’s worth attacking. Or is it? Are we going to bash Silas Marner as well? Lord of the Flies? The Pearl? The Good Earth?

White Noise I enjoyed at the time; I wonder whether I would still enjoy it now that I am no longer an undergraduate, and I also wonder whether it simply hasn’t aged well, whether the particular academic fads that he’s satirizing are, since they are no longer current, no longer a successful basis for satire. The Road I haven’t read. But I’m not sure either of these have yet wormed their way into the canon – as opposed to the canon of books that some of your friends are likely to want you to read. The Corrections isn’t really canonical yet either, but it so plainly and obviously and desperately wants to be canonical that I suppose you have to slam the door hard if you want to keep it out.

Then there are two books that have already been voted off the island. Do you know anybody who reads either John Dos Passos or D. H. Lawrence? I don’t. In fact, they both strike me as authors who are ripe for rediscovery. Whether they are worth rediscovering, I don’t know, as I haven’t read any of either’s work (actually, I think I read a Lawrence short story for a class once, but I don’t remember it) – but let’s put any evaluation in proper context. These are authors who were once canonical but who have fallen deeply out of favor. Throwing them off the island means endorsing the status quo estimation of them, not overturning it.

(BTW, there was some talk around the water cooler of responding to Infinite Summer with “The Fall of the U.S.A.”, reading John Dos Passos’ opus this autumn and commenting on our progress on this site. I’m still up for that if others are.)

That leaves two books that are clearly canonical (they are among the key books by each author, are also key exemplars of their genres/periods, and have lots of fans) that he’s voting off: One Hundred Years of Solitude and On the Road. Since I haven’t read either, I can’t comment – but I suspect I’d wind up agreeing with him about both.

What would I add to the little list?

It’s not actually my general preference to play this game. Among other things, I haven’t read everything in the universe. The authors of the list above want to knock off White Noise and The Corrections. But what about the work of the Pintchik Oracle? Is it not equally or more worthy of banishment? I’ve never read The Recognitions. Maybe I’d hate it so much, I’d like all these other books much better by comparison!

As well, our judgments change over time. I read a book, and like it, but then reflect on it and it begins to curdle in memory, until eventually I’m embarrassed by my original enthusiasm. Another book I initially can’t get into, take three tries to get past page 50, then suddenly I’m hooked.

And I’ve made the rules tougher, by ruling out going after a minor book by a major author. And taking on a major author’s major book is daunting. For example, I would be inclined to vote off The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster, but nobody thinks it’s his best book, and I’m not sure anybody reads it. So, I could try to take a whack at A Passage to India – indeed, somebody should – but do I really think it’s a bad book? No – nor do I think people shouldn’t bother to read Forster anymore. I just think he’s due for a demotion.

Then there are the books where you just have to be the right age. Or the right sex. Take Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being – please! I loved this book when I was 19 – sex and deep thoughts! – but basically this is a book for intellectually-minded adolescents, not for grownups. So: should it be voted off the island? Not really; the book, and the author, are just a phase some boys go through, and going through it won’t do them any lasting harm, I don’t think.

Then there are the books that I still think are good, but not as good as people think they are. A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin is an example; so is The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I enjoyed both of these ooks, but both are trying way too hard, and because of that are ultimately not convincing. I remember individual bits of writing I liked, individual moments that worked really well, but I didn’t ultimately believe in them as works of art. Which is a pretty fundamental fail.

And then there are the authors who are just past their sell date. John Barth, for instance. When was the last time anyone suggested you should read The Sot-Weed Factor or Giles, Goat Boy? I haven’t read either of them, but I wasn’t terribly impressed by what little Barth I have read. But what’s the point – he’s not really in the canon anymore, is he?

This leaves me with three books that I genuinely think are not good but that are unquestionably canonical, and should be voted off the island:

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. I had to spend three weeks marinated in this humorless, self-pitying rant as part of a survey of modern English fiction. We spent only a week on Ulysses. Why? As the professor said, “this is my favorite book.” It appears to be a lot of other people’s favorite books as well; it’s on Time’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Someone needs to save these people from themselves.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Yes, it’s historically significant. Yes, you can “study” it until the cows come home. The big intro lit crit class when I was an undergrad read only one primary text before diving into a dozen different literary theoretical approaches thereto, and the one text was Frankenstein. But it’s boring! Boring with boring on top! And it has no style! Read Dracula instead – now there’s a novel!

The Watchmen, by Alan Moore. I should probably put this in the same category as Kundera, and just say this is a phase some boys have to go through, and leave it at that. And I’ll admit, it holds your attention. When the movie came out recently, instead of going to see it, I re-read the graphic novel. And I was certainly able to read through it – it was a breeze. I wasn’t bored. But trash isn’t generally boring. And that’s the problem: this is trash dressed up as something more. And the sensibility behind the book is not actually one that you want anybody taking seriously.

Your own suggestions?