What book would you choose to take with you, if you were about to be stranded on a desert island? As well as the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, of course. Obviously you can have those.
Desert Island Discs, the Radio 4 programme that has been asking hypothetical castaways that very question since 1942, seems, on first listen, as if it’s all about music. Guests, a range of eminent people in their respective fields, each choose eight pieces of music to take with them, and their music choices often reveal illuminating aspects of their character and memories from their lives. But they also get to choose a book – in addition to the Bible and Shakespeare – and a luxury item.
When the programme was originated by its first presenter, Roy Plomley, and first broadcast during the Second World War in the bomb-hit Maida Vale Studios in London, castaways were only offered music. It wasn’t until October 1951 that books were added, and the actor and director Henry Kendall, the first castaway to be given a book choice, opted for Who’s Who in the Theatre.
The book choice says a lot about the person who chooses it, and when the castaway is a writer, it often reveals something of their inspirations that wouldn’t be found elsewhere. Margaret Atwood’s choice of the 1001 Nights, a trove of dark myths and fantasy, is fascinating. And Maya Angelou’s selection of The Negro Caravan, the 1940 anthology of African-American writing across two centuries, edited by Sterling Allen Brown, Arthur Paul Davis and Ulysses Lee, is a powerful statement. Angelou chose it for the strength of the political writing and the beauty of its poetry by enslaved people.
Intriguingly, many novelists choose the collected poetry of their favourite poet. Kate Atkinson opted for Emily Dickinson; Stephen King for WH Auden; Anne Fine for Philip Larkin. Bernadine Evaristo, Roald Dahl and Michael Morpurgo each chose an anthology encompassing a range of poets.
Plenty of novelists do choose fiction, sometimes heavyweight classics. Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) is a popular choice, especially for writers: Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman and AS Byatt all picked it. Not to be outdone, Ian Fleming chose War and Peace – in German.
Some castaways are less keen on the literary requirement of island life. Jamie Oliver didn’t choose a book at all, claiming that he doesn’t read books, but he did ask for a pen and paper instead, to write recipes on. Emily Eavis, co-organiser of Glastonbury Festival, rejected the offer of Shakespeare and asked instead if she could have the complete recordings of the Beatles, reasoning that their work is the Shakespeare of pop.
And some castaways seize the opportunity for narcissism: Engelbert Humperdinck in 2004, and Lady Diana Cooper in 1969, each chose volumes of their own respective autobiographies.
Hearing what noted writers would choose to read is only part of the literary joy of Desert Island Discs. A more profound literary experience comes from listening to the programme as a whole and hearing writers talk about what music means to them and their work.
There are so many writers in the BBC’s Desert Island Discs archive that you must look through it and find your own favourites, and there are plenty to love: try Zadie Smith reflecting in her deep, warm voice on the interplay of writing and family, and how she leaves her study door open while she writes to allow her small children to wander in when they need her: “Letting life in – even if it means the loss of a book here, a book there – it doesn’t seem to me a disaster,” she says.
And, given that Smith is a writer who found immense success at an early age with the publication of White Teeth, what are we to make of the fact that Smith’s first music choice was Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’?
There’s often something about writers reflecting on their favourite music that encourages them to talk tenderly about their early inspirations. Terry Pratchett, interviewed by Sue Lawley in 1997, poignantly remembers writing a fan letter to JRR Tolkien in his youth, and being amazed to receive a reply.
Also remarkable in Pratchett’s interview is the rudeness of some of Lawley’s questions: “People say you’re the Dickens de nos jours, but that’s pushing it a bit, isn’t it?” (Pratchett diplomatically replied that he just “let the critics get on with it”.) As for his process, in which he wrote about two books a year, Pratchett compares novels to complicated works of carpentry with dovetailed joints: “They’re very difficult, but I know how to do them”.
And then there’s Margaret Atwood, in her dry, languid tones singing the radio advertising jingles that she involuntarily memorised. And Bernadine Evaristo, who discusses wanting to be a nun as a child, and how borrowing books from Woolwich Library and attending youth theatre in her teens changed her world view.
And Ali Smith, who says, almost casually, that “We think we live and we’re just living… actually we live by telling ourselves stories about the lives we are living”. Smith compares writing a novel to operating “a giant Hoover. It just hoovers up everything that comes through you.”
Arundhati Roy is more elemental when describing the process of writing a novel: “Fiction is less a book than a city, or a sedimentary rock,” she says. “Layers and layers and layers. It’s mysterious and esoteric, and you know that you have to wait for it. It’s a dance, I’m never in a hurry, and I’m very secretive about it while I’m writing. Sometimes I don’t even know if I’m writing or just concentrating, and the folks in the book are coming out.”
Sometimes the literary episodes of Desert Island Discs are pure joy and humour. Jilly Cooper, appearing in 2016, is a fountain of gloriously offbeat remarks and sideways observations: “I always said if you amuse a man in bed, he won’t worry about the mountain of dust underneath. That’s quite a good line, isn’t it?” Cooper’s luxury item was “a great big sack of nuts so I could tame the monkeys, because then I could have some pets.”
And brimming over with warmth and humanity is the great Maya Angelou, interviewed by Michael Parkinson in 1987. Speaking in the most natural poetry, she recalls her earliest memories of music, at the age of 4 or 5, hearing her grandmother’s beautiful singing voice, “like hot gold, like melting gold it seemed to me.”
At one point, Parkinson asks Angelou if she would rather be a six-foot white man, instead of a six-foot black woman.
“No, oh my God,” she replies, laughing. “All those unfortunate, unachievable expectations. I hope to become a better human being – a kinder, wiser, funnier, more courageous human being – for me… My fantasy is to be a six-foot tall, black, female American. A writer, successful, who laughs a lot, and drinks just enough Dewar’s White Label scotch, a little white wine, and goes to church on Sunday, and really means it.”
Angelou is sharp, gracious, hilarious, inspirational, and a brilliant storyteller, and her episode is one of the best of all time.
And it’s not just writers who offer a literary take on the castaway experience. One of the most interesting episodes for keen readers features Sir Tim Waterstone, who recalls emerging from a very difficult childhood to stand in Heffers bookshop as a Cambridge student, and know then without a doubt that he wanted to create a bookselling empire. On starting up Waterstones in the 1980s, he says, “Gosh it was fun”.
And there’s the poetry critic Al Alvarez, a luminous personality whose interview with Sue Lawley in 2000 is like being at the most gossipy literary dinner party of your dreams. He recalls having a face-off with FR Leavis over whether Thomas Hardy belonged in the literary canon; his friendship with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; and the chaos of surviving war, and how poetry written since has responded to that fear and stress.
There are some authors whose choices, sadly, we will never know. Angela Carter endlessly honed the music and books that she would have chosen and was desperate to be invited onto the programme, but devastatingly she never was, until shortly before her death, when she was too ill to accept.
But the most ingenious thing about Desert Island Discs is that it’s a dinner party conversation as well as a radio programme. You can spend your whole life agonising over what you yourself would choose, if anyone asked. Even if, like Angela Carter, you never make it onto the programme itself, you can always play the game.
And if it’s too difficult to choose your favourite book? You could cheat, like the country rock singer Emmylou Harris. Her book choice was an empty notebook. And her luxury item? An entire library.
Charlotte Runcie is the radio critic for The Daily Telegraph.
What book would you take to a desert island? Email email@example.com and let us know.
Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin