Thursday, February 17, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop: A Book Before Dying

Literary Blog Hop
It’s Literary Book Blog Hop time again, hosted by The Blue Bookcase.  This week’s question is posed by Mel U from The Reading Life who asks:

“If you were going off to war (or some other similarly horrific situation) and could only take one book with you, which book would you take and why?”

These days, I suppose one could take an e-reader with a thousand different books but that is probably a bit of a cheat and slightly defeats the purpose of the question!

I have actually recently read a couple of books that do actually address the relationship of soldiers (or at least officers) to literature.  From an American perspective, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth Samet is a fascinating account of her experience as an English teacher at West Point and her relationships with the young men and women whom she taught there.  A more English viewpoint is provided by Patrick Henessey in his account of Sandhurst, Afghanistan and Iraq in The Junior Officer’s Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars.  Both are definitely worth a read (although the latter is as much a war memoir as anything else) but neither is at hand to assist me in this post.

I started by thinking I might take something that I could turn to during the tough times to remind me of my reasons for fighting and for having joined up in the first place or to rekindle any feelings of honour or patriotism that had been extinguished in the field.  This might be David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty, in which he restates a philosophical principle that appears to have largely been forgotten, namely that, as individuals, we owe duties and obligations to our fellow citizens and to our communities as much as we have individual rights.  Alternatively, I might go for something less dry and more emotional, such as a volume of poetry from the early days of the First World War when poets such as Rupert Brooke could still write un-self-consciously about sacrifice:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”

On reflection, however, I may have become too heartsore or hardened in spirit for this kind of writing to speak to me.  I may be frightened and, in anticipation of death, may rediscover the faith I lost as a teenager in which event a copy of The Bible or The English Book of Common Prayer may be what I need.

I’m not convinced that this would actually happen though and, even if it did, I can still remember sufficient to be able to pray and console myself from memory.  I guess that, to answer this question properly, I have to face up to the fact that it would be entirely possible that the book I choose might well be the last book I would ever read.  What book would I want to be fresh in my mind when I go to meet my Maker?

Should it be a Great Classic, a volume from the canon of world literature?  Something of great merit and wisdom so that, should I cease upon the midnight (although I suspect with rather than without pain), my mind would be filled with deep thoughts?  Shakespeare, maybe, or Homer?  Dumas? Trollope? How about some Victor Hugo? Dickens might well work – possibly Oliver Twist or The Pickwick Papers.  Not too heavy but just heavy enough.  I’ve never read Don Quixote, Ulysses or War and Peace and I could die with a sense of satisfaction if one of these were my last read.

But, no.  I don’t think so.  I would want some comfort and relief with my final book.  I would have my mind fly away to a better, warmer place than a muddy foxhole.  There are so many to choose from, too many really.  The Lord of the Rings would be a strong contender.  I used to read it once a year and, as well as being a great story, it would bring back happy memories of my childhood.  Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers similarly has an entertaining plot, is set in my old university and brings back enjoyable memories.  What else?  Well, as anyone who has read any of my other posts will know, I am a P.G. Wodehouse nut and so one of his Blandings books would be a true mental flight to a sunnier world.  I’d like to be greedy and take one of the several omnibus editions but, if I am pinned to a single volume, it would be Summer Lightning, a classic tale, in which the Empress has disappeared, leaving Lord Emsworth devastated and Gally writing his memoirs which have the potential to embarrass almost the entire aristocracy.  This would definitely transport me away from the battlefield.  I could read this over and over again and not be bored.

Yes, that’s it.  In war, I would want humour and escapism so Wodehouse gets the nod.  But actually, were I on the front line and facing death, the final thing I would want to read would be a letter from Mrs Falaise and mini-Falaise, sending their love and thoughts, with a nice photo of the pair of them.  That would be more precious than any author’s writings could be.

15 comments:

Melody said...

What a fun post--it was great to read through your thought processes and reasoning. A lot of great books mentioned here!

Listener said...

I agree - my pick was either Bill Bryson or an anthology of humor writers for much the same reason. I did consider Wodehouse, but decided I might want something longer than most of his books.

Em said...

I like your conclusion :)

BookBelle said...

A well written post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts much.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I'm attempting to read War and Peace now and I suggest to you that it's not a great idea to choose a book you've not yet read....What happens when you are out there, in the middle of the bullets and the blood, and you whip out your book, only to realize that this is not the best book for you right now?

I love your nicely reasoned thoughts here.

Here's my post: www.readerbuzz.blogspot.com

leeswammes said...

I agree that something fun would be good to take. I wouldn't want a book about war to escape the daily life of a ... war! My book is totally different - the story takes place 1,000 years ago. That should be sufficient distraction from war too. http://leeswammes.wordpress.com

Falaise said...

Melody - thanks for the comment!

Listener - I hear what you are saying about the length of the average Wodehouse but I decided he bears rereading well so it didn't matter so much.

Em - thank you. :-)

BookBelle - thank you for your kind comment and for stopping by.

Deb - I think you are right, which is why I plumped for something else in the end.

Lee - I will go over and read your thoughts right now.

Adam said...

Very interesting - I had to debate for a while on my own choice. I ended up with something that's not even a favorite, but which I think would be appropriate and satisfactory in that particular situation.

By the way - you should definitely read War and Peace. It was my favorite read of 2010 (and one of the best pieces of literature I've ever read). There's a review up on my blog, if you're interested.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

New follower here. I enjoyed your musings--and though I love Wodehouse, my final answer is one of your runners-up: The Lord of the Rings. I'd love to have your opinion on my response if you'd care to visit...

parrish lantern said...

lovely idea, but how about the letter tucked between the pages of a book.

gautami tripathy said...

Loved your thoughts. You covered interesting points!

Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

Good points ;)
I picked the Bible.

I'm following from the hop.

ecwrites.blogspot.com

Orhedea said...

You can't take an e-book to war. You don't always have electricity. I picked a heavy hard cover. A great weapon and a good read.

Trisha said...

I love reading through your thought process! Too fun. And I'm with you - war=humorous books. At a time like that, we'll have enough of the serious.

Thanks for stopping by eclectic / eccentric!

Falaise said...

Adam - War and Peace is something I will be reading at some point in the future and I will make sure I read your review.

As the Crowe Flies -Thanks for the comment and I will have a look at your post.

Parrish Lantern - Good idea!

Gautami - Thanks and i will check out your post

Elisabeth - I can see how the Bible would be a good pick from several perspectives.

Orhedea - I was hoping I would be on a modern battlefield where I could charge it off something but I suspect a hard cover might be of more practical use.

Trisha - thanks for the comment.