Despite the influx of new things to read this holiday season, there’s nothing quite like curling up with a classic. Every week, creative people share the 10 titles they would most want with them if they were marooned on a desert island — a part of the editor Aaron Hicklin’s ongoing project OneGrandBooks.com. Here, eight recommend the classics that have stuck with them.
“The Complete Essays,” Michel de Montaigne
This book should, in my humble opinion, replace Gideon in hotel bedside tables the world over. An examination of what it means to be alive, an essay for every possible constituent part of the human experience, built upon the endearing and radically joyous motto “What do I know?” An uplifting and companionable fellow traveler for us all. A timely reminder of how toxic doubtlessness can be. Straight from the 16th century into the now. Forever and ever.
“The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
The novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”
“Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen
Because nobody has ever been slyer with characters than Austen. It still blows my mind that her unsavory and unfortunate characters — Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Charlotte — are the only ones who truly know what time it is.
“Madame Bovary,” Gustave Flaubert
The first feminist character in a novel. I love this period of French lit, reflecting the life of a bored wife trapped as a woman in a “suitable” marriage as a way to maintain her inheritance. It was seen as introducing realism and the modern narrative.
“Love in the Time of Cholera,” Gabriel García Márquez
“Love in the Time of Cholera” is not a love story, but more a treatise on the subject of love in all its many forms. Márquez’s brilliant storytelling here is a joy, transforming the mundane realities of a long marriage into moments to be savored and relished. The intimate discoveries and daily bonds of marriage are at once thoroughly human, relatable, as well as spiritually transcendent.
“The Golden Bowl,” Henry James
I adore Henry James and yet freely admit to never having made it all the way through this one. I have a strong suspicion something truly critical to my life lies in the last 50 pages, and if I were alone with it on a desert island, I would finally find out.
“Far From the Madding Crowd,” Thomas Hardy
When I was 9 years old, I went to a book fair behind a church in rural New Hampshire. I was allowed to pick out two books. I really wanted Gary Larson’s “Beyond the Far Side” (the stuff that guy does with woodland creatures!). But I knew I should pick out a book book as well, so I grabbed the Thomas Hardy to balance it out. I remember trying to read it, highlighting all the words I didn’t understand. I gave it another crack a decade or so later and found it engrossing. Like a soap opera with sheep. Turns out there are woodland creatures in the Hardy too.
“Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy
There is a section in “Anna Karenina” where Levin goes into the fields to assist the peasants with his harvest. It is hard work, at first awkward and frustrating. The labor requires strength, patience and a centered connection to one’s self before productivity and pleasure are possible. This passage has always stuck with me as an example of the level of commitment it takes to do anything well in life. I try to remind myself of Levin when life or work feels overwhelming. The rest of the book, of course, is just a big, fat masterpiece.