Monday, January 16, 2012

Desert Island Ding-Dongs

Imagine you know you are going to be stranded on a desert island, and can take with you the following to make your stay more bearable: eight musical records, one book, and one luxury item.

This is the premise of the world’s second longest running radio programme, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs (the oldest is The Grand Old Opry). It started in 1925 and its guests tend to be the Commonwealth’s good and great. That is to say, folks who occupy interesting positions of prestige or authority in politics, the arts and sciences. Ordinary people will not have heard of most of them. However, because it has become an institution, being invited to make your selection is considered an essential step in having earned one’s place in culture, much like an unofficial prize. To reflect its distinctly British tenor, castaways are automatically given The Complete Works of Shakespeare (assuming, naturally, that one could not survive without it, and presumably to cut down its appearance as a choice), and not to offend one’s gods, The Bible or a religious text of their choosing.

What’s eminently interesting about Desert Island Discs, and what has contributed to its longevity, is the public’s curiosity about the choices such luminaries make. They are allowed to speak to their selections on the show, which makes it a delicious form of interview, in that one is permitted an insight into the person via their selections. It also encourages self-reflection: what choices would you make, and why? What do your choices say about you? How would they be interpreted by the public at large?

You can find the entirety of the show’s catalogue of guests and the choices they have made on the Desert Island Disc’s Website, and on Wikipedia. (Links below.)

When looked at as a whole, interesting patterns emerge. Some are curiously amusing: how come two people decided to double up on their Bibles by making it their book of choice (in addition to the one already there)? How come nine people saw the need to bring various works by Shakespeare, even though everything he ever wrote is waiting for them?

Sadly, you cannot search the database by genre — you can’t discern what the ratio of fiction and non-fiction is. I’d be interested in seeing what percentage of guests pick texts that are clearly designed for self-improvement, making use of their confinement in a productive manner. Some combine the luxury item with a book to this end: a piano is the most requested item, and some people also bring a guide to playing it. Many people use the time to keep family members close, choosing photo albums. No-one chooses porn, though one would presume it crosses the minds of many. (Kama Sutra, zero selections.)

What irks me the most, however, is that 43 people have chosen Tolstoy’s War and Peace as the one book they will bring with them for succor. Of all the texts ever published, they pick this? War and Peace is famous for two things: being extraordinarily long (over 1,500 pages in most editions), and as one of the books most cited as something people claim to have read, but actually have not. This is due to its assumed prestige; Tolstoy is a brilliant writer, sure — but isn’t having an ambition to read War and Peace (or being able to say one has) really about one’s literary ego? Is this because it’s a long book, and therefore suggests an enviable stamina for reading? Or because its theme is so large and Important with a capital I? If you are interested in the topic, why not bring Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War? Or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War? (Zero selections.)

This leads me to think that those making Tolstoy their choice merely want to be occupied, picking the longest text they can think of, to kill time. Waiting until you literally have nothing else to read doesn't particularly recommend it as a bucket-list book. This might have been cute the first time it was selected, but it isn’t now, and besides, there are far more really long books available now than there were in 1925. Besides, you’re not going to impress anyone by being able to claim you read War and Peace after an extended stint as a castaway on a desert island. Assuming you return to society, it’s enough to say you survived the ordeal (or even that you were on the radio show).

Because everybody’s choices are so easily searchable, it is very easy to see what has already been chosen, so that should you be plucked from obscurity to share your list with the world, you can check it in advance for originality. I sure would. 123 people, for example, beat me to the punch by choosing a dictionary (though only one chose an encyclopedia). You can search the database by work, author, or castaway. I made the mistake of looking up George Clooney, who was a guest in 2003 (mostly because I am a girl who falls for this sort of thing). His musical selections are eclectic and reveal a touch of the clown he so ably displays in his comedic turns on stage and on film in his choice of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” — by William Shatner. Haw haw. And (really, George? Really?)War and Peace.

What would you choose? List them in the comments section below!

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