You may have been asked what one book you would want to have with you if you were stranded on that proverbial desert island, you know, the one with ever ripening fruit falling from the trees and bacteria-less fresh water bubbling from springs and handy flint lying around for sparking palm frond fires, an island where you could kick back and be sedentary rather than spending all day searching for edible grub worms.
My suspension of disbelief won’t allow it. I’ve found a better hypothetical opportunity for selecting a limited library, a trip to Mars. According to Tom Kizzia of the New Yorker, NASA is prepping astronauts for a Martian mission, a voyage that would take them “a hundred million miles from home, no longer in close contact with mission control.”
“Staring into the night for eight monotonous months,” Kizzia asks, “how would they keep their focus? How would they avoid rancor or debilitating melancholy?”
Lauren Leveton heads NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance program, and if I were to be chosen for the 3-year round trip to Mars (because of planetary motion, you’d be stuck on the surface for months), I’d love for her to allow me to bring three hardback bound books, ancient non-electronic artifacts with paper pages that turn and can be annotated with a sturdy #2 pencil. She might begin by telling me to choose one poem, one novel, and one play. As much as I love non-fiction, I would want works that recreate the Earth and its denizens as vividly as possibly, which means dramatization.
Of course, you’d want an epic, something worthy of your own journey, and the obvious candidates the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid leap to mind; however, I don’t read Linear B Greek or Latin, so I have to rule those three out. My poem must be in English, so nothing’s lost in translation, and the obvious choice seems to be Paradise Lost, which contains all time and space, justifies the ways of God to men, describes not only Eden’s earthly paradise but also many an exotic non-mythical locale in ravishingly beautiful baroque language. Also.he’s managed to embed much of the Bible and Greek mythology into the mix. You get as much of pre-18th century human history as possible in a mere 10,000 lines.
Dig this epic simile that vivifies the number of fallen angels rolling on the fiery seas of Milton’s hell:
[Satan] stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves overthrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating Carkases
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.
The brilliance and beauty of these lines amaze, the fallen angels compared to fallen leaves, then floating sedge on the Red Sea, the setting where Moses escaped the Pharaoh’s army, who like the Fallen Angels dared defied Yahweh.
But no, it’s not Paradise Lost I’m packing but Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself :
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread,
crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the
passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the
eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the
fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising
from bed and meeting the sun.
Every time I read it, it makes me come more alive, and I absolutely love its catalogues. Walt would remind me of the cities farther and farther away on the out, closer and closer on the way back:
The blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb,
the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,
The snow-sleighs, clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snow-balls,
The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs,
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside borne to the
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly
working his passage to the centre of the crowd,
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,
What groans of over-fed or half-starv’d who fall sunstruck or
What exclamations of women taken suddenly who hurry
home and give birth to babes,
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what
howls restrain’d by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made,
acceptances, rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the show or resonance of them — I come and I
And also he’d be right there in the capsule with me:
Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the
Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and
the diameter of eighty thousand miles,
Speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest,
Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in
Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning,
Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,
I tread day and night such roads.
No time wasted here. Despite Faulkner’s great achievement, it’s Joyce’s Ulysses, which brings to life the human condition like no other work I know. I can shoot the rapids of Stephen Dedalus’ consciousness, or Leopold Bloom’s, or his wife Molly’s. I can walk the vivid streets of Dublin, day and night. I can adjust to and savor each new style as Joyce shifts from one episode of the Odyssey.
Although I virtually have it memorized already, I’d bring along my old pal, the Danish Prince. He’s a lonely sort, and as Harold Bloom says, the most intelligent human ever. I suspect I’d prefer his company to my fellow astronauts, technical folk who remind me of camp counselors, and Hamlet is a worthy companion for Walt and Leopold and plays no small role in Ulysses. And, yes, the poetry!
Uh-oh, Dr. Leveton has informed me I can take only one!
Given the above, which one would you choose?