You’re stranded on a desert island, a castaway from every modern convenience. No smart phone, no tablet, no laptop. It’s unimaginable deprivation, and there’s no end in sight.
Except, you do have a hammock to string between palm trees, a super-sized tube of sunscreen and a portable bookshelf with room for a handful of volumes. But which volumes?
The choice is yours. Which novels, histories and memoirs would you want at your fingertips? Which tomes can withstand multiple readings? Which will get you through the long, unstructured days ahead?
The University of Denver Magazine posed this fiendish challenge to some of the most enthusiastic readers we know. Not only are their selections delightful and surprising, they’re well worth stealing.
Eric Boschmann, associate professor, Department of Geography and the Environment
“Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot,” by Mark Vanhoenacker
This book is a view of the world from the imaginative perspective of a Boeing 747 pilot who has a mesmerizing aesthetic and a poetic style. It is hard to put down.
“Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas,” by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
If deserted on an island, there would be no better way to pass the time than getting lost in an atlas, perhaps the Goode’s World Atlas. But Solnit’s atlas of New York City is so richly and creatively illustrated — with accompanying essays of the city’s idiosyncrasies — one could take a lifetime uncovering the Big Apple’s infinite layers.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston
I first read this as a teenager 30 years ago. It’s hard to explain why, but this beautiful novel was formative and remains unforgettable. If I could read only one novel again, this would be it.
“Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” by Richard Rohr
Many books explore the ancient wisdom of finding meaning and purpose in the second half of life. Rohr’s is a short and insightful perspective that is worth an occasional revisit. Another on my “to read” list is David Brooks’ “The Second Mountain.”
“Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver,” by Mary Oliver
Oliver writes accessible poetry. She uncovers life lessons in nature. Many introspective exemplars I admire today find inspiration from her work. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” These poems linger.
Eric Boschmann has written extensively about contemporary Denver and Asunción, Paraguay. In addition to teaching introductory-level courses, he teaches several urban-related classes, including a first-year seminar on Metropolitan Denver, an interterm travel course on the rise of the modern metropolis in New York City, Urban Sustainability and Urban Landscapes.
Alumna Sandra Dallas (BA ’60)
“Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” by Anne Lamott
This is the first of Anne Lamott’s books on faith. It’s written for people who aren’t sure what they believe, and in these times, many of us are questioning God’s purpose. It’s not only spiritual, but laugh-out-loud funny — something else we need in isolation.
One Hundred and One Famous Poems
My favorite book when I was growing up was this 1928 volume of poetry that belonged to my father. Included are poems by everyone from Edna St. Vincent Millay to James Whitcomb Riley, Rudyard Kipling to Eugene Field. I loved the cadence of these poems and memorized many of them, including “The Children’s Hour,” “Jest ’For Christmas” and “The Highwayman.” They still bring back memories of my childhood.
“War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy
I’m 80 years old. It’s time I read it.
“The Tenmile Range,” by Belle Turnbull
It surprises me that I would include two books of poems, because I’m not crazy about poetry. “The Tenmile Range,” written by a woman who was old when I moved to Breckenridge as a bride in 1963, is evocative of the Colorado mountain people who stayed on after the gold was gone.
“The Diary of Mattie Spenser,” by Sandra Dallas
Oh, come on. Can’t I include just one of my books? This is my favorite of my books, and I probably should have reread it a few more times before I turned in the manuscript.
Sandra Dallas is a former Denver bureau chief of Business Week Magazine. She is the author of 30 books, including 16 adult novels and four midgrade novels. Her latest is “Westering Women,” a story of sisterhood on the perilous Overland Trail.
Alumnus C.J. Box (BA ’81)
“Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller
I was shocked to find out recently, when I ordered a new copy, that this novel is over 50 years old, and it humbled me. This was the book that convinced me I wanted to write, and few novels are darker, funnier, more exasperating or more wise. I get something new out of it every time I read it.
“Blood Meridian,” by Cormac McCarthy
This is probably the bleakest novel I’ve ever read. It stays with you years after you put it down (provided you can finish it). It’s McCarthy’s finest (and, on second thought, maybe not the best read to keep your spirits up on a desert island). There has never been a creepier villain than Judge Holden.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories,” by Flannery O’Connor
It’s a sad thing that well-crafted short stories have become a thing of the past, because they’re harder to write than a full-blown novel, and they can, in the hands of an author like O’Connor, pack a bigger punch. This is her best collection.
“Little Big Man,” by Thomas Berger
Like “Catch-22,” this one gets better with age. Although I’m a huge fan of the author all around, this is perhaps the perfect revisionist Western. By turns hilarious, insightful, inclusive and downright cruel, it’s an absolute tour de force.
Novels and Essays by Thomas McGuane, including “The Sporting Club,” “A Sporting Chance,” “Ninety-Two In The Shade,” “The Longest Silence” and “Some Horses.”
OK, this is cheating, since it’s a lot more than five books, but McGuane is in my opinion the finest literary stylist I’ve ever read. Plus, he writes about fishing and horses.
And since I’m already cheating …
“Boatbuilding Manual,” by Robert M. Steward and Carl Cramer. Because I’ll want to get off the island.
C. J. Box is the bestselling author of 27 novels, including the Joe Pickett series. He won the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Novel (“Blue Heaven,” 2009), as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, two Barry Awards, and the 2010 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Award for fiction. His latest book is “Long Range,” the 20th in the Joe Pickett series.
Micheline Ishay, professor, Josef Korbel School of International Studies
“Les Misérables,” by Victor Hugo
You have most likely seen the musical and the movies, but many no doubt have missed reading Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.This magnum opus tells the story of a fugitive who escapes prison during a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Throughout three volumes, Hugo captures with unparalleled verve and psychological insights the economic curse of poverty, the wretched conditions of single and poor mothers, the trivialization of great injustice and the drama of social conflict.
“The Origins of Totalitarianism,” by Hannah Arendt
During the post-industrialization era, under nationalist banners, imperialist countries were colonizing the world to secure food, raw materials and cheap labor. In a real tour de force, Arendt traces the 19th century roots of conquests built on exclusionary policy. In the 20th century, these policies will culminate in the rise of totalitarianism. From there on, Nazism and Stalinism depended on the dismantlement of civil societies based on class interests, the reliance of the mob, and the targeting of Jews and other perceived “superfluous” or “stateless” people. As Western societies again face rising dangers of fascism, racism and antisemitism, Arendt has reemerged as a prophet of our epoch.
“The Testaments,” by Margaret Atwood
In an evocation of those dangers, the acclaimed novelist takes us to a dystopian world, the Republic of Gilead — a fictional theocracy established in North America. As the republic slowly disintegrates, three women who have come of age in a merciless regime of fear converge their efforts to dismantle the strict religious and fascist state. At a moment of disorientation for defenders of universal human rights, Atwood is correct: Dystopia should not be the last word.
“Utopia for Realists,” by Rutger Bregman
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the great dysfunctionality of our world. The prevailing view is that we are moving inexorably toward more surveillance, more robotization, more unemployment and more self-serving authoritarianism. A few, however, challenge that sense of pessimism by depicting new possibilities for advancing the common good. In“Utopia for Realists,” the philosopher Rutger Bregman shows how policies — including a universal basic income, a 15-hour week and open borders across the globe — are attainable. This is not the definitive response to counterprevailing dystopia — it might be even a bit too voluntaristic — but this genre of literature is a step in the right direction, as it links bold ideas to a pragmatic vision of a better world.
“The Wretched of the Earth,” by Frantz Fanon
We are living in a surreal time—one in which fascistic trends, a pandemic, economic scarcity and racial divisions have converged in a pressure cooker. Recent global rage against police brutality and systemic racism reminds us of the longstanding anticolonial struggle. Writing with literary verve and utilizing psychoanalytic and economic tools, Frantz Fanon describes the brutality and repression carried out by French colonizers in Africa. Though written in a different context, Fanon’s opus stands the test of time, offering an important window into social psychology, the structure of oppression and the dilemma of violent resistance.
Micheline Ishay is distinguished professor of international studies and human rights at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where she also serves as director of the International Human Rights Program. Her latest book, “The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East,” was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.