Thursday, 21 October 2021

Ten Books for My Prison Cell

Good choices, but I would make one change. I would drop the book of verse and replace it with a volume of Chesterton.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Joseph Pearce

Last week I recorded a podcast for the “Inner Sanctum” of my personal website discussing “Ten Essential Books for My Desert Island.” Imagining myself doomed to be marooned on an uninhabited island, I selected ten tomes which would keep me company. This scenario was brought back to mind yesterday as I struggled to find space for new acquisitions on the burgeoning bookshelves of my own home. I’m not sure how many volumes grace the voluminous expanse of the Pearce family library but it seems odd that none of them seems dispensable. Do all of the thousands of books really have a sacrosanct place on the shelf or is their apparent indispensability a manifestation of my own personal attachment to each of them? More to the point, is such attachment evidence of a lack of detachment? Am I possessed by my possessions? Is each volume “precious” in the manner in which the Ring is precious to Gollum? Am I a creature of comfort, enslaved by the creature comforts, idolizing mere “stuff”? Am I as incapable of parting with any of the trinkets in my personal horde as is Smaug? Would the loss of a single solitary book cause me disquiet? Has my bibliophilia metamorphosed into the dragon sickness?

Such thoughts set me thinking.

What if I were forced to part with every book I own? Or what if I were really marooned on the desert island, being allowed to take only ten volumes with me? Or, switching metaphors, what would I do if I were hauled off to prison, having been “cancelled” for my dissident opinions, being permitted only ten volumes in my prison cell? In short and in sum, and to borrow a phrase from Maurice Baring, what “literary luggage” would I declare to be truly indispensable if forced to do so?

The first choice would be obvious enough. Not wishing to be separated from Holy Scripture, I would declare the Bible to be a necessary part of my diminutive library. As for the version I would choose, it would be the Douay-Rheims. After all, who would wish to read clunky modern translations when one can bask in the glorious beauty of the Elizabethan and Jacobean English in which Shakespeare wrote? And speaking of Shakespeare, the second indispensable volume would be an edition of the Bard’s complete works.

Next would be the Oxford Book of English Verse, in the edition edited and compiled by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, originally in 1900. I would choose the revised edition, published in 1939, which features verse by Hopkins, Francis Thompson, Yeats, Belloc, Chesterton, Noyes, Sassoon, Wilfrid Owen and others, which were not included in the first edition. This splendid anthology, ranging chronologically from 1250 until 1918, contains almost a thousand of the greatest poems ever written in the English tongue. If one could not imagine being separated from great poetry, and I couldn’t, this would be the one volume guaranteed to satisfy the poetic and prosodic appetite.

My fourth selection would be The Lord of the Rings. I know people who read Tolkien’s epic, not merely perennially but permanently, in the sense that, as soon as they finish it, they begin reading it again. I have sometimes envied those who have the leisure time to indulge themselves in this way. Locked in a cell, in solitary confinement, would permit such self-indulgence.

If I could not imagine myself being bereft of Tolkien, I could also not imagine myself being separated from the work of C. S. Lewis. Permitting myself only one volume, I’d choose the single volume edition of his three works of science-fiction, variously known as the Space Trilogy, the Ransom Trilogy or the Cosmic Trilogy.

Another writer I could not see myself being without is Hilaire Belloc. Without doubt, the Bellocian volume I would select is his Complete Verse. At his best, Belloc is the twentieth century poet whom I enjoy the most. I am aware, of course, that there’s a difference between one’s favourite poet and the best poet, the former being a subjective preference, the latter an objective judgment. One might concede that Eliot claims the laurel as the best poet of the past century but Belloc is indubitably my favourite. What is more, his poetry is more voluminous than the more modestly-sized oeuvre of Eliot, and size certainly matters if one is only allowed ten tomes in one’s personal library. It might be conceded that Belloc’s verse is uneven compared to Eliot’s but the best of Belloc more than compensates for the worst. I am already pining for the absence of The Waste Land and Four Quartets from the lone shelf of books in my cell but the sacrifice is necessary. Having included Belloc, it might seem odd that my radically streamlined library would not include anything by Chesterton. This seems to scream out for an explanation. Surely it is an act of folly, at best, to omit the great GKC, and perhaps an irredeemably reproachable sin of omission. And yet, there’s not a single volume by Chesterton that merits a place in such exclusive company. There’s not any of his works that I could see myself visiting and revisiting every week for as long as the prison sentence might last. There it is. And so be it.

A work that I could certainly keep reading, without ever tiring of it, is Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’d select the Penguin edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation, which retains Dante’s innovative terza rima and contains Sayers’ superb and extensive notes. Staying in the Middle Ages, I’d also take with me a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The more I read Chaucer, the more I admire him. I haven’t read him enough, and some of the Tales I have not read at all. As such, I’d be able to explore more deeply those tales I already know well while also venturing into virgin territory with those parts of the work of which I have been thus far neglectful.

The penultimate volume is less obvious but would offer countless hours of enjoyment. This is the Chambers Biographical Dictionary. The edition published in 1984 would be the one I’d select, avoiding any more recent editions which would no doubt be clogged up with the irritating and ephemeral presence of unwanted “celebrities.” This work of reference weighs in at 1440 pages and contains brief biographies of well over 15,000 figures of historical significance. One can imagine hours of blissful solitude, scouring the centuries of history in the presence of those who made it.

My final selection even surprised me when I decided upon it. This would be the Complete Works of Robert Southwell. My reason for its inclusion in such exclusive company is simple enough. Southwell’s writing in both poetry and prose was a significant influence on Shakespeare, the latter alluding to Southwell in plays as diverse as Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear. I could imagine spending innumerable hours becoming so familiar with Southwell’s work that I could discover other places in the works of Shakespeare in which England’s greatest poet pays homage allusively to one of England’s greatest saints.

Having imagined myself spending countless hours reading these ten specially selected tomes, it dawns on me that there are worse ways of spending one’s time than in solitary confinement, even with such a limited library. With this in mind, I am minded to join in the merry madness of King Lear, in his immortally delirious words to the noble Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison!”

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