“If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book with you…”
It’s rare to find your life line up with this kind of wild-fantastical, high-theoretical question. The very nature of the question discourages a practical approach; if you were really stranded on a desert island, wouldn’t you choose either Constructing Signal Flares for Dummies or else The Complete Oxford Encyclopedia, because it has the highest number of combustible pages? And, in 2016, are you allowed to answer “my fully loaded Kindle”? The more follow-up questions you ask, the less fun this sort of game becomes.
Right now, my life feels like it’s composed entirely of follow-up questions. At the end of August—that’s three months and counting—my family is moving to France for a year-long sabbatical. But first, and soon—as in, three weeks and counting—we’re hopping to a bunch of other spots on the map, including Montreal, Kelowna, Seattle, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Osaka, Japan. Can you feel the follow-up questions already ganging up and breaking down the door?
In the immediate future, the two big tasks are: (1) preparing our house in Cape Breton for year-long guests, and (2) packing. How do you pack for a summer as busy as that PLUS a year of doing next to nothing? The sunscreen vies for space against the books. Did I say books? I literally feel like, given the amount of suitcases we’re planning on packing for a YEAR, I can only afford to bring one book. I won’t be on a desert island, and even if my options are mostly en français, there’s always Amazon. I could even buy a Kindle.
So I know I shouldn’t stress about it, but in lieu of actually, y’know, packing, I find myself staring slack-jawed at the bookshelves, trying to crush a purely theoretical question into hard reality. We must have over a thousand books in our house; many of them came with us when we moved east 7 years ago, from Edmonton to Sydney, so that SKC (my wife) could work full-time at Cape Breton University. But we’ve acquired nearly as many since that time—mostly books on local history and folklore to engage with our new home, or else YA fantasy novels to escape from it. And since 2011, we’ve also been accumulating children’s books, as X (our son) came in to the picture. It adds to a lot, and I’m ashamed to realize how many volumes have never been finished, or even begun.
Three years ago, we started a post-Christmas social event called “Booksing Day.” We invited nerdy and/or intellectual friends (in other words, all friends) to bring one book for a gift exchange. That first year, we also offered up scads of books for free, since SKC was trying to unburden herself of some of her parents’ inheritance, including a library almost as large and diverse as our own. I still enjoy Booksing Day, but it also makes me feel like a fraud, because the fact is, I don’t read that much. I could blame the busy schedule wrought by freelance work and parenthood, but those sorts of excuses don’t wash. If I were stranded on a desert island with a treasure chest overflowing with tomes, I’d still only browse the first chapters of the ones on top.
It didn’t always use to be like this. During my undergrad, I had a part-time job at Smithbooks in West Edmonton Mall. It was paradise for a bookworm: I’d speed-read through junky sci-fi or soft-core erotica on my shift breaks, and then I’d take the more serious stuff home to devour in the evenings. I discovered Dostoevsky, Ondaatje, and Brontë, not because they were on a reading list but because they looked cool. I read biographies and mysteries and absolutely anything involving vampires. I considered it research for work (even though my job was minimum-wage retail, I took it seriously in the way that only an industrious 19-year-old would do), but also for my career aspirations. I was old enough to know that being a professional author is an unlikely racket, but young enough to believe I could beat the odds, if I gleaned enough from the literary giants.
Then, after getting my B.A., I went to the National Theatre School to study playwriting, a truncated adventure that very nearly killed my love for writing, much less reading. After that, I smoked a lot of weed and started working at a video store, whereupon my “homework” changed formats. Nowadays, I don’t watch many indie movies, either, but I never recovered my thirst for reading.
All of this history helps to explain why I’m placing such pressure on myself to choose a book, or books, or Kindle files, for my sabbatical. I’m 41, I’m a freelance artist, and since I’m probably never going to have a retirement, this weird Year of Nothing is probably my last chance to radically change my lifestyle, or at least my habits. I want to come back to Canada a better person, even though objectively I realize there’s nothing wrong with me. I want to transform, because change is necessary, and because holding on to the present for its own sake is a trap. But I don’t just want to go back to being a 19-year-old polymath, either. If I can embrace reading, I want it to happen for its own sake, not because it’s good research, or preparation for the next phase of my career.
These tail-devouring anxieties will crop up again and again, I’m sure, as I start to feel my way through what it means to have a “sabbatical” in the first place (or, in my case, a second-hand sabbatical, since we are actually staying in France for SKC’s research). For now, I’ve chosen a book to pack—my desert island book. It’s always been on my list of top texts, even though I’ve never actually read it from cover to cover. And I think the themes are fitting, given what I hope to do with this adventure.
My desert island book is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What’s yours?