My Desert Island Book

We’ve all played this game haven’t we? Yes we’ve done the music but because we love books we’ve always changed the game and tried to decide which eight books we’d take to the island. But I always find that nigh-on-impossible. In a way it’s easier to keep to the rules of Roy Plomley’s wonderful original conception and keep the decision down to the one book.

Go for long? Proust? (Yes really.) Go for unread? Proust? (Still mostly…) Go for improving but still magical? Proust? (Afraid so.)

Go for old genre favourite? Lord of the Rings? That’s pretty long and I’ve read it more times than I have any other book.

Or go for a book that takes me right to the centre and right to the edge and which will show me something new every time? Something by M. John Harrison?

Or a book that changes how I see the detail of the world? A collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie?

What about poetry? The vivid imagery, full history and rich humanity of Derek Walcott?

The quandries are endless and huge fun. And I come up with different answers all the time.

But the book I come up with most often? A short book. A book I read first as a child. I book weighed down by my sentiment for it.

The book? The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

A book with talking animals? A book tied to a parochial vision of a rural England that was anachronistic even as Grahame wrote it? A book teeming with logical inconsistencies? Rife with middle-class morality?

Guilty as charged.

Yes, a book weighed down by its own sentiment for a disappearing world. But still a magical book. A book of quiet but immense power. A book of quiet humour and small things. But a book of deep feelings. Profound yearnings. Real magic.

I could try and explain all this. But this isn’t about being rational. This is about how I felt about Mole breaking free of the drudgery of his spring cleaning and finding the joy of Spring. It’s about that amazing picnic on the river bank (Grahame writes with a real passion about food), its about the descriptions of the English Countryside, the hilarious yet endearing pomposity and idiocy of Toad. It’s about the evocation of the urge to wander at war with the comforts of home as Rat feels the migratory pull at the end of Summer. But above all it’s about the real magic. There is one scene in particular that would stop that desert island being a prison. It’s when Mole and Rat go looking for Otter’s missing son and find him, safe in the care of Pan.

I don’t know of another passage in fantasy that conveys power, magic, the awe of a different sort of divinity as strongly as those few pages in this little book from my childhood that has stayed with me through adulthood and which is going with me to the island.


I find myself the Associate Publisher of Gollancz with no clear idea of how I got here but fairly sure I enjoyed the journey. There was some college, a lot of bookselling and a bit of marketing along the way but that was a long time ago. I’ve been editing since 1991. I’ve always read SF, Fantasy and Horror but I’ve always enjoyed reading other stuff as well. I’ve published other stuff too but never had as much fun doing it as I have publishing genre books. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing; to the extent that I’ve been comprehensively ruined for doing anything else. Anything else may have got off lightly. I’m definitely more Arthur Dent than I am Takeshi Kovacs. But then if anyone in publishing tells you they’re like Takeshi Kovacs they are LYING.
  • My Desert Island book is probably still Silverlock, by John Myers Myers. With its wealth of allusions to characters and settings across literature, it is endlessly fresh and new to me, and sparks my imagination.

    That, or maybe The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Gibbon. Endlessly fascinating history.

    Or maybe the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.

    Or maybe the Lord of the Rings.

    Or maybe…

  • I’d have to go to a collection of the very first stories I ever read. The Complete Chronicles Of Conan: Centenary Edition.

  • I agree that it is very difficult to chose just one.

    For me, there is a book that I have read multiple times. A book that has a central thread running through it with a series of short stories (so that I could read one, go shark fishing, read one, build a shower etc.)
    . A book that celebrates humanity in many different forms.

    For me, that would be Heinlein’s “Time Enough For Love”.

  • RJ Barker

    I think I would choose The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe. Though I know it’s more than the book itself it and it would have to be my particular copy that was my Mum’s first. People may witter on about it being a Christian allegory but I don’t really care because MAGICAL LION. And as a child I read Aslan as the spirit of summer, the renewal of the cycle. To be quite frank if you don’t weep when he’s reborn and breathing life back into the statues then you are probably some sort of monster who murders puppies for fun.
    But more than that, it’s the idea of the wardrobe. For a kid growing up in the suburbs, where everything was normal and dull that wardrobe was amazing. It was the metaphor for the books I devoured to escape a remarkably normal life. I am still searching for my own wardrobe to pass through. Though the journey is generally exceedingly pleasurable.