As a sucker for a travelogue, when writer and travel blogger Phil Rosen got in touch with me to ask if I’d be interested in reading his memoir, Everywhere But Home, I swiftly ordered myself a copy, and soon after started following his adventures on Instagram. An avid reader like myself, Phil grew up in California, and now lives in New York City, where he works as a journalist and writer. I loved reading about the two years he spent living in Hong Kong, and was thrilled when he agreed to take part in my Desert Island Books series; even more so when I discovered how similar out literary tastes are.
Featuring one of the American greats, one of the best thrillers from recent years and a memoir that sits on the cusp of a coming-of-age account, here are the eight books Phil would take with him to the sandy shores of a desert island…
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
This is simply one of my favorite novels. Steinbeck rightfully appears on many people’s favorite writers list, but the crowd is correct on this one. The book is a rollercoaster of humanness — tragedy colors the story, but small and inspiring victories help keep the characters afloat and the stakes balanced.
When I first read this a few years ago, I enjoyed it so much I immediately restarted it when I finished it. This book is so deep with meaning, so subtle in its ideas, that I could read this over and over again and never get to the bottom of things — a perfect choice for a desert island.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I could read anything by Gillian Flynn over and over again, especially this one. Not that Gone Girl is a story specific to a desert island, but it’s just so thrilling, fast, and spooky that it’s a must-carry for entertainment purposes alone. A guilty pleasure read of mine.
The downside to bringing along Gone Girl is that it is so unputdownable I’d be reading and rereading it far too quickly if I had nothing else to do. It’s really that good of a novel.
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
One of my favorite books to reread because I’ve learned so much from it. It’s the story of a dying professor and his former student (the author), and the relationship they build at the end of the professor’s life. Upon every revisit, I am blown away by the wisdom Albom imparts through his writing.
His ideas on relationships, romantic and otherwise, are simple but timeless. More than once, I’ve been moved to tears by this book. On a lonely island, some emotional depth can be comforting and rewarding. Plus, it’s a fast read — maybe one or two lazy afternoons. Morrie is an easy choice for me.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I’ve read books I liked more than this, but Wild is too fitting for a desert island not to include here. Cheryl Strayed is a master of articulating the sentiment of solo travel and adventure, so she would be an eminently worthwhile companion for a stranded reader.
The book, at its core, is a coming-of-age story, even though Strayed (the main character) wasn’t a child when she wrote it. She grows up as a person, becomes stronger and more thoughtful through overcoming a physical challenge. That’s the kind of book that would inspire me to keep on keepin’ on if I were out on my own.
Island by Aldous Huxley
Huxley is most famous for Brave New World, which I also loved, but this book seems to fit the theme here far better. Plus, I think it is a more difficult, complex book to understand. It’s about a fictional, utopian island. Huxley’s best attempt and making a perfect society (and he did a pretty darn good job in his creation).
The story follows the discovery and subsequent demise of the utopia. The characters change so well and so beautifully as they navigate the perfect island and unwittingly damage it. Huxley balances politics, religion, spirituality, economy, and other societal elements in what is the most noble attempt at utopia I’ve come across in fiction.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I’m a sucker for historical fiction, and I’m doubly so for anything that has to do with Paris. Add in a World War II backdrop and it becomes a no-brainer for me. Doerr’s book is written so intentionally and with such subtlety. It took me multiple readings to fully catch all the thematic elements and callbacks between the beginning and end of the book.
The main character, Marie-Laure, is so loveable and inspiring. And once again, falling back on practicality here — on a desert island, a story like this is necessary to remind you about human love, hope, and triumph in the face of apparent hopelessness. One of my all-time favorites, and a fitting one for lonely moments.
The Plague by Albert Camus
I read this early on in the pandemic. Even though Camus published this in 1947, it reads as if it was written for readers in 2021. The description of quarantines, an unknown disease killing people at such a rate that an entire town had to go into lockdown, the isolation of the characters.
Everything felt so close to home and too believable — but that’s what makes it so good. It is a work of genius, with philosophical, existential themes running throughout the book, and characters that I empathized with so much that I felt, at times, I was reading a book about myself.
I’d pick this because it really does articulate what it means to be human, and how isolation and uncertainty can change people for better or worse.
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
Perhaps my favorite book of all time by one of my favorite authors of the 20th century. It is not quite a happy story, but a candid and bare one; it recounts life as plain reality, without the usual fluff and romance of fiction. It’s the story of a man coming to terms with himself, aspiring toward wisdom, and watching others in his life ultimately fall short.
But the writing is beautiful, and the story makes you think, as if the author is posing an endless string of “what if’s” to the reader. This book, for me, is re-readable to the nth degree. Similar to others I’ve mentioned, it’s a book I could read countless times and never grasp the full meaning of the words or absorb the weight of its gravitas. It’s a book I recommend most often, out of all the books on this list, and naturally it is the one I’d protect most if I were banished to my own corner of the world.
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