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What books would you want with you on a deserted island?

Reading a book at the beach


Elizabeth Scalia - published on 11/18/15

20 top Catholic writers answer the an age-old question. Can you guess which writers chose which books?

There are times in life when the world presents so many hard headlines, and so many complex issues, that it feels good to ask an easy question, and get an easy answer. Sometimes, though, even the easy questions become a little knotty, because multi-faceted human beings like to play with simple things. We asked an age-old question of a number of Catholic writers (and one monastic “jack-of-all-trades” who sometimes writes):

If you were stuck on a desert island, what book (besides the Bible) would you want to have with you, and why?

Below are their answers. And because humans do like to make things more complicated than they need to be, we’ve turned this into a quiz. See if you can determine which writer answered with what book—the brief bios besides their names may or may not be clues.

1) I’d take The Sign of Jonah by Thomas Merton. I’m not sure why I like it so much. Maybe it’s because it was written a few years after The Seven Storey Mountain, when some of his starry-eyed idealism about religious life has worn off. Maybe it’s because he’s so good at capturing the ups and downs of the spiritual life. Or maybe it’s because he’s such a great writer. In any event, it’s my favorite of all of his (many) books.
A) Peggy Noonan, author, The Time of Our Lives
B) Deacon Greg Kandra, Homilist
C) Fr. James Martin, SJ, author, The Abbey

2) Are you asking for desert island reading because it’s getting cold? I’d probably read something by Fr. Timothy Gallagher or Fr. Thomas Dubay, to coach me in discerning the spirits even if the sun gets to my head.
A) Kathryn Jean Lopez, author, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice
B) Sheila Liaugminas, radio show host and author, Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture
C) Lisa Hendey, author, The Secret of the Shamrock (Chime Travelers)

3) I guess How to Survive on a Desert Island would be a cliché answer? How about Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony the Great (would seem an appropriate resource; if I can’t be a desert father, I might as well be a desert-island father).
A) Father Steve Grunow, CEO, Word on Fire Ministries
B) John Thavis, author, The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age
C) Sr. Judith Miryam Boneski, OP, of soap making nuns, Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary

4) Contemplating this question seemingly as early as adolescence or teenage years, I first and always thought I’d want a pen and paper and lots of books. I think the Summa Theologica would be most valuable. For starters. But that implies I’d have a lot of time. Given the possibility of shortened time, I’d want Dr. Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa, or A Shorter Summa if a shorter time. Augustine’s Confessions is a must. So is Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. And each of these because the time would best be spent striving to understand human and divine will, what I had done wrong and repent of it, and to know, love and serve God, and hopefully prepare for union with Him. If the provisions also allowed for Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (given longer time there) or Orthodoxy (if shorter duration), that would be much appreciated.
A) Austen Ivereigh, author, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope
B) Sheila Liaugminas, radio show host and author, A Closer Look
D) Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor, First Things

5) I do feel a bit hesitant in revealing my choice since it is not a spiritual classic or theological tome but a collection of mysteries, none other than G. K. Chesterton’s The Complete Father Brown Stories. Through his humble priest detective, Chesterton offers insights into human nature, which are both theologically profound and homey. And, all this is presented in lush language, with rich cinematic descriptions, which draw one into the story. Behind the mystery to be solved, Fr. Brown is always conscious and respectful of the more important mystery of the human person in all his/her complexity. In fact, in one of the stories when he is pressed to share his “method of detection,” he calls his method of detection a “religious exercise.” Come to think of it, there have been times when my reading of the book feels exactly like that!
A) Mary DeTurris Poust, author, Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship
B) Bishop Christopher Coyne, Bishop of Burlington, Vermont
C) Sr. Judith Miryam Boneski, OP, Infirmarian, Summit Dominicans Monastery

6)The Brothers Karamazov is the one book I would have alongside the Bible, because it is the one book other than the Bible through which the breath of God most seems to blow.
A) Simcha Fisher, author, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning
B) Matthew Schmitz, First Things
C) Fr. Steve Grunow, Homilist

7) Easy—no question: The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. It’s a swashbuckling Norse epic that is jam-packed with one great story after another. It’s the kind of book that reminds you what a joy it is to be alive.
A) Lisa Hendey, The Grace of Yes: Eight Virtues for Generous Living
B) Jennifer Fulwiler, radio show host, SiriusXM
C) Fr. Stever Grunow, weight trainer.

8)Charlotte’s Web. It is about life and death, loyalty and hope, friendship and perseverance. And in its clear prose and careful precision, it stands as a model of simplicity and elegance. Its themes (and clarion style) continue to teach me even now, nearly 50 years after I first read it.
A) Deacon Greg Kandra, Blogger
B) Peggy Noonan, author, On Speaking Well: How to Give a Speech with Style, Substance, and Clarity
C) Sherry Weddell, author, Forming Intentional Disciples:The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus

9) Without a doubt it would be the official four-volume set of Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Even though this version of Rev. Alban’s original was written in 1956, it’s still one of my favorite go-to resources at the library when I’m researching saints. It contains more than 2,500 biographies of men and women who lived lives of great valor and faith. When you read the stories of the saints, it’s so easy to become caught up in the history, the richness of their experiences and also the sort of often very bizarre things that happened that surely the time on that island would pass quickly! I’d also receive plenty of insight for how to face the challenges I would encounter with trust and love.
A) Kathryn Jean Lopez, blogger
B) Calah Alexander, mother and blogger
C) Lisa Hendey, Catholic innovator and author of A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms

10) My first response (I’m sure I’m not the only one) is Chesterton’s very Chesterton-y answer, that he’d like A Guide to Practical Boat Building. But that would do me no good, because I can’t even put together a paper boat that floats. I vote for Norton’s Anthology of Poetry, which covers English language verse from medieval times to the present. I haven’t been able (or willing) to sit down and wallow around in poetry since I left college, but I sure miss it. If it’s good, true, or beautiful, it’s Catholic, so a broad collection of poetry would feed me spiritually as well as mentally and emotionally, and would remind me of everything I miss about humanity (and everything I don’t miss, too). Also, the pages are thin enough that I could use the Sylvia Plath section to roll cigarettes. There must be something to smoke on this island, right?
A) Mark Shea, author, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did
B) Tod Worner, blogger
C) Simcha Fisher, blogger

11) I would make believe I had a bigger backpack. I would bring my new book. Is that too vulgar? Yes, it is. But I could amuse myself finding typos and writing letters to my editor that could not be sent because I’m stuck on a deserted island. Finding typos would divert me from my immediate problem. I would need a miracle to get back home, and two books full of miracles are the great big thick biography of the Cure D’Ars [by Abbe Francois Trochu], and the wonderful Biography of Theresa of Avila by a former editor [Marcelle Auclaire] of the French magazine Marie Clare. I would also bring the biography of Samuel Johnson by Jackson Bate. Johnson sometimes experienced life as a deserted island and made his way through great anguish, which in a lonely place might be inspiring.
A) James Martin, SJ, author, Jesus: A Pilgrimage
B) Peggy Noonan, author, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan
C) Jennifer Fulwiler, author, Something Other than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It

12) For light reading it would be three books, one story: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I have read these three books about once every other year or so since I first discovered them at age 12. They are so filled with myth and legend, good versus evil, magic and loss. Every time I read them, I discover something new. They never get old for me.
A) Leticia Adams, blogger
B) John Thavis, author, The Vatican Diaries:A behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church
C) Bishop Christopher Coyne, Blogging Bishop

13) Chesterton’s reply: Thomas’ Guide to Practical Ship-Building.
A) Mark Shea, author, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition
B) Peggy Noonan, political columnist
C) Mary DeTurris Poust, Blogger

14) I would bring Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers because I know it would keep me thinking and laughing every time I read it.
A) Leticia Adams, writer
B) John Thavis, blogger
C) James Martin, SJ, author, My Life with the Saints

15) I think I would choose Moby Dick, because being marooned with it on a desert island is probably the only thing that would finally force me to finish it. Also, it would definitely knock some time off purgatory. Too silly of an answer? I can come up with a book I actually like and reasons for wanting to have that one if you want, but I figured everyone else would be doing that, and I should bring the levity. [Ed.’s note: I’m tired, enough with the links …]
A) Simcha Fisher
B) Matthew Schmitz
C) Calah Alexander

16) My stock answer would be The Complete Works of William Shakespeare because his keen insight on human nature and his incomparable wit is worth treading and re-treading. But I think everyone will groan at that one, so I will say Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Wise and wise, serious and frivolous, Chesterton has so much to say on everything from Scientism to fairies, from Nietszche to good cheese. And while a first reading of Orthodoxy (which Chesterton calls “a slovenly autobiography”) can leave the uninitiated’s head spinning, a reappraisal after a second, third and fourth read reveals that this man is a complete genius with his finger on the soul of man and the glory of God. Now, to be sure, when I first read Orthodoxy I hated it because I didn’t understand it. Now I realize the flaw rested not with Chesterton but with me. I’ll never tire of Orthodoxy.
A) Tod Worner
B) Mark Shea
C) Austen Ivereigh

17) Aha, great question. A really good Companion to the Bible, stuffed with maps and scriptural exegesis, so I could endlessly recreate scenes from Scriptures while sitting in the sand. Otherwise it would need to be epic, multi-layered literature, but I can’t choose. Lastly, I’d like to bring a book which doesn’t look that big, which turns out to be the case for an iPad (loaded with Kindle books), with solar recharger and desert-island hotspot.
A) Bishop Christopher Coyne
B) Austen Ivereigh
C) Jennifer Fulwiler

18) This may seem light weight but I’d pick the essays The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis. It is the most compelling depiction I have ever read of the process of what the Church calls “subjective redemption”—the drama of the redemptive graces won by Christ reaching, transforming and saving us through the assent and cooperation of other human beings in time and space. If I were a Carmelite and asked to pick a religious name, I would choose “MyName of the Redemption”. I quote The Weight of Glory everywhere I teach/speak.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too long or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. (45)

A) Mary DeTurris Poust
B) Sherry Weddell
C) Jennifer Fulwiler

19) If I was stuck on a dessert island and could only have one book, I would take Shirt of Flame by Heather King. It was a really hard decision to make for me because I have tons of favorite books and so many favorite authors, but Shirt of Flame helps me to do three things that I need to do but often don’t make a priority of doing: praying, writing and sorting out my own spiritual junk. It also reminds me of our connection to the saints like St. Therese who stalks me regularly. Heather King writes books that make me want to be better but not in a way that makes me feel like an epic failure. This book in particular helps me pray which is an area that I could use a lot of help in.
A) Leticia Adams
B) Kathryn Jean Lopez
C) Simcha Fisher

20)Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, by Henri J. M. Nouwen. I’d want this book with me because Nouwen continually reminds me—and I need never-ending reminding!—that our brokenness is not our downfall but rather a distinct and treasured part of our belovedness, that our call is to take our brokenness out of the shadows and “put it under the light of the blessing.” Nouwen challenges us to see our brokenness as a blessing rather than a curse, as a beauty mark rather than a scar.
A) Mary DeTurris Poust
B) Sr. Judith Miryam Boneski, OP
C) Bishop Christopher Coyne

1-C, 2-A, 3-A, 4-B, 5-C, 6-B, 7-B, 8-A, 9-C, 10-C, 11-B, 12-C, 13-A, 14-B, 15-C, 16-A, 17-B, 18-B, 19-A, 20-A

Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia

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