The Desert Island Game


This will eventually turn into a game, I promise, but it’s going to start out as something else, sort of a rumination on a question that has been much on my mind of late, a question that I think most of us don’t give nearly enough thought to. This question has been around so long that it has acquired a lot of different forms, but the basic question, the question behind the question, as it were, is about our view of ourselves and those aspects of our personalities that we consider basic and important—or at least the ones we want the rest of the world to think are basic and important to us. This is where the “game” element comes in: it’s a way of revealing ourselves without getting all weird and solemn.

Some of the forms this question has taken over the generations are the following: If you could take only one/two/ten books with you to a desert island, which one/two/ten would they be? Or, if you could take only ten cds with you, which ten would they be? (There was, I think still is, a radio program in England based on this version, called “Desert Island Discs.”) Or, if you could take only two items with you, what would you take? Or, if you could take one other person, who would it be?


Some of these formulations are better than others. The book question is the moldy oldy, and almost anyone, offered a choice of two, will opt for the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. Why? The stated reason is that those two would supply you with a great volume and a great variety of exceedingly great literature; the real reason is that almost nobody can come up with a replacement that will command the same instant respect as these two. If you offer a person only one, she’s almost bound to pick one of these two.

Offer people ten books and you find out who their favorite authors are (or the authors they want people to think are their favorites), because almost everyone begins with the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare (which are often published that way, in one volume) and, feeling inspired, proceeds to list “the complete works of” her eight favorite (“favorite”) authors, even though nobody would (or could) publish them as “complete works” in one volume: John Grisham? Stephen King? (“Can I include all the stuff he hasn’t written yet but will?”)

You get into the same problem with music: “Can I count all the Brandenburg Concertos as one cd?” And I don’t know enough about music to know what the two basics would be, but I’d bet that anyone who hasn’t been glued to MTV since birth would list at least one golden oldie by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, or somebody equally classical and respectable.

If it’s people, that’s a real toughie. The first thought that springs to my/your mind is our squeeze du jour, but if you are going to be exiled for an indefinite period to a desert island, is it fair, is it right, is it even desirable to exile your sweetie with you? Besides, who would look after the kids? No, the only way to play this game is to pretend you’re all alone, no ties, because if you start thinking about the ones you’ve left behind, you’ll be crying too hard to read any of your ten books.

So then who? I think there are four basic choices: (1) “Friday” or his equivalent, a servant to do all the work, preferably cultivated and sexually attractive; (2) an experienced survivalist who could take care of you, preferably cultivated and sexually attractive (if this isn’t an oxymoron); (3) some celebrity (brain or body, the choice is yours); or (4) nobody. If I were choosing, I think I’d opt for nobody; Friday would be my second choice.

Actually, though, before we get to choices of any kind, I think we’re forgetting that this game has some ground rules which everyone takes for granted, but which I think ought to be clearly stated ahead of time. (“Is this a trick question? Does one of my items have to be food / flint and steel / a lifetime supply of tampons?”)


First of all, let’s talk about the concept “desert island” and the unwritten assumptions included in the question. When we hear the question, most of us probably think of the icon of the desert island we have all learned to know and love from cartoons in the New Yorker or Playboy or the like: a breast-shaped mound of sand about two yards across with a palm tree, sporting one to three coconuts, growing out of the nipple. Period. Obviously the question can’t really apply to this kind of desert island; the only thing you could possibly want to take would be an inflatable raft, or a cyanide pill.

So what are the minimum requirements that this “desert” island has to have before we can approach the question in the spirit in which it is asked? Basically, it has to be an island capable of supporting life; this means, first of all, that it can’t be submerged at high tide. It has also got to have a reliable source of fresh water, say a spring, and a variety of edibles from the four basic food groups, low in cholesterol, readily identifiable to a non-botanist, and easy to gather, dig, catch, or pick. It would need an equitable climate but also some form of shelter, achievable by non-survivalists and non-engineers—say a nice dry roomy cave. I think I’d also insist on a knife tree and a match bush; I don’t really see myself settling down to a lifetime of raw food and cold water, and there is no way I could cope with flint and steel, even if I could identify either one in its natural state (come to think of it, I don’t think steel even occurs naturally).

What this all boils down to is that the person of whom the question is asked has got to be assured that she will be able to live, not just survive, on this “desert” island, which means that hunting and gathering and weaving palm fronds into pajamas and placemats will not occupy all her time. Otherwise when will she read her books / listen to her music / play chess on her computer?


Then there are the assumptions that go with the various questions. Whether you’re allowed two books or ten or a hundred, your choice is beside the point unless you can take your glasses. Your special glasses, the unbreakable ones that automatically get stronger as your eyes get weaker, the ones that are attached permanently to your ears so you can’t lose them.

If it’s music, compact discs will be no fun unless you have an MP3 player with its charger and a two-thousand-mile extension cord, or the new model that runs on solar power. (Of course, unless your battery is fully charged, you can’t listen to your music at night, or when it rains.)

And suppose it’s two “items” you’re allowed to take and, keen and intrepid as you are, you choose a bowie knife (self-sharpening) and a tinderbox (not that I really know, but I believe this is supposed to contain a flint and steel and other dandy stuff for starting fires the hard way).

Then suppose further that just as you crawl exhausted out of the surf onto the beach of your island, bowie knife in your teeth and tinder box (waterproof) under your arm, a shark bites off your right foot. Boy, will you be sorry you didn’t choose a tourniquet as one of your items!

I think survivalist-type equipment has to be left out of consideration; I don’t know enough to pick the right items, and anyway, stated like that, the question bores me. Give me a knife tree and a match bush every time, plus those wonderful vines that are as strong as hempen cords yet pliable enough to be woven into fishnets. Better yet, how about two kinds of vines, the hempen cord kind and another kind that grows into fishnets. And I forgot the brush trees: pick ’em green and they’re toothbrushes, wait till they’re ripe for hairbrushes.

I’ve been avoiding the subject, but I suppose one would also have to assume that one had had one’s appendix out and also (this is why I’ve been avoiding it) all one’s teeth. Of course, they would have to have been replaced with the new kind, indistinguishable from the real thing, the kind that they graft into your jaw, so you won’t have to take a lifetime supply of denture cleaner as one of your items. You brush them with the unripe brushes but never have to worry about cavities or gingivitis.


We’ve now pretty well defined “desert” island, I think—I mean, the assumptions one has to make in order to even get to the question. But what of the question itself? As you will have guessed, I’m not very sympathetic to the book version or the music version, and I think the person version, as explained above, is extremely limited in scope.

No, my favorite version of the game is the “two items” question. Why two? One of anything is too desperate and agonizing, and three is too lavish. Define an item: an item is anything you want it to be, or any person. Could I choose a fully equipped Hilton Hotel as one of my items? Sure, but just think what it would tell us about you.

All right, let’s finally get to the game part and talk about some serious choices:


What two things would you take with you to a desert [see definition above] island?

Answer: Tom Cruise / Brad Pitt / George Cloony / Johnny Depp / Other________ (pick one) AND plenty of lubricant / condoms / sexy underwear, or a good gynecologist (pick one).


Or, here’s a clever one:


What two things would you take with you to a desert [see definition above] island?

Answer: a seaplane and a good pilot.


(By this time you should be thinking seriously about what you would take, and I hope you are. Please try to decide before you read any further; I would hate to feel that you might have been influenced in any way by what follows.)


* * *


And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: what two items would I take with me to a desert (as defined above) island?

Answer: two boxes, ten feet long, four wide, and four high. I know it seems incredible, but you gotta have faith: if I remember my arithmetic right, each one would contain 160 cubic feet of space. I’ve seen studio apartments that looked a lot smaller than that sounds. I am also assured by experts that it would be plenty of space for what I have in mind. But being the kind of person who prefers safe to sorry, what the hell, let’s say twelve long, five wide, and five high. Right away (this is where the faith comes in) we jump to 300 cubic feet of space per box. Wow. People raise children in smaller spaces than that.

Okay. We have two very large containers. What are they for?

One of them is 95% full of books and 5% full of writing materials (5% of 300 square feet is a LOT, fifteen square feet, to be precise). If we postulate electricity (solar, tidal, whatever), part of the 5% could be a computer (unbreakable, uncrashable, upgrades automatically installed) with word-processing software and internet capability.

The other box is 99.8% full of vintage Bordeaux and 0.2% full of corkscrews and beautiful crystal wine glasses.