Last week I was at a job interview where one of the interviewers asked me, “What three books would you take with you to a desert island?”
I’m afraid I came off rather pretentious and egghead-y when I came up with the following list:
- Personal History by Katharine Graham
- Intuition by Allegra Goodman
- The Private Science of Louis Pasteur by Gerald Geison
He then asked me to pick something “totally non-academic,” whereupon I said (of course) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
Of course, I wasn’t happy with my list. I spent the bus ride home contemplating this question, and I realized two important things. First, instead of Intuition I should have picked the as-yet-unpublished third book in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe trilogy.* Second, the “desert island” question will, by its very nature, lead a lot of people to pick egghead-y books. Desert island books are books you’re going to be re-reading for all eternity. Books that are long and dense are a natural choice. But that list doesn’t necessarily give a good idea of what a person reads on a day-to-day basis.
Here’s a different way to ask the three-books question: “If you had to fly to London tomorrow, what three books would you pick to take with you on the airplane?” Airplane books are a different prospect than desert island books — you’re not being asked which books you would want to re-read over and over again, you’re being asked to pick three that would help you pass the time enjoyably while you’re trapped on an airplane. That’s a question that gives a much clearer sense of what the person likes to read (and hence their personality, and hence whether you’d want to be trapped with this person in an office for eight hours a day).
Here’s my current airplane list of books that I haven’t read yet, but really want to:
- Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen — just so I can see what all the fuss is about
If it had to be three books I’d already read, my list would be:
- Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom
- Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
What are your airplane books? What about your desert island list?
* I know it’s risky to pick a book that’s not even published as one of my companions for the desert island, but if past performance is an indication of future performance, Rothfuss’s third book is going to be unbelievably good and compulsively re-readable. And if I’m going to be sent to a desert island I want to be sure I will get to learn how the trilogy ends!