Remote desert isle where we might some day be stranded and allowed only one book.

Remote desert isle where we might some day be stranded and allowed only one book.

One sure way for magazines, websites and television to attract readers or viewers is to come up with a top ten list of damn near anything. It’s a solid ratings strategy. It builds suspense and plays on the natural curiosity of the reader, who will generally hang in there until the bitter end to find out which of the world’s beaches are, in fact, the sexiest, or which American restaurant is the numero uno place to pig out. Then, once the winner is revealed, the viewer can take issue with the verdict and wax both wroth and eloquent on why Dreamland barbecue should be ranked above the venerable but highly overrated Dixie Pig.

It also seems to elevate the interest level if the top ten list is framed within the context of the desert island. I found one list that polled show business figures and asked them to name the five cinematic comedies they’d want with them if they were suddenly castaways on some uncharted isle. The question was bizarre … it seemed to assume the availability of electricity, DVRs and big screens in a Gilligan type environment. In my humble opinion and in light of the isolation and gravity of assuming the Crusoe lifestyle, I think books would be a more appropriate diversion for the castaway even if electricity were somehow miraculously available.

A random google search of “top ten books on a desert island” delivered Mortimer Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s preferences to my computer screen. Two worthy intellectuals, to be sure. Here are their lists:


1. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War

2. Aristotle: Ethics, Politics

3. Plato

4. Plutarch: Lives

5. Augustine: Confessions

6. Aquinas: Summa Theologica

7. Montaigne: Essays

8. Shakespeare

9. Locke: Of Civil Government, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

10. Tolstoy: War and Peace

Van Doren

1. Montaigne: Essays

2. Shakespeare

3. Plutarch: Lives

4. Homer: Iliad, Odyssey

5. Dante: Complete Works

6. Cervantes: Don Quixote

7. Freud

8. The Bible

9. An anthology of poetry

10. Collected Poems of Mark Van Doren

I find their selections offensive … here are the top three reasons why.

1. They are too formulaic. These books are almost exactly what I’d expect a mid-twentieth century, white, middle-aged academic to select.

2. They are pretentious. I don’t care if you are Mortimer Adler or Charles Van Doren … I refuse to believe that anyone who’s lounging under a coconut palm on a sandy beach, having just gorged on a hearty repast of raw fish and rainwater, will have the slightest inclination to take a turn at Summa Theologica … or go rummaging through his traps in search of his Freud compendium.

3. One of them is incestuous. Charles Van Doren picked his father’s (Mark Van Doren) collected poems. The younger Van Doren earned a modicum of notoriety when he was part of a game show scandal in the 1950s. One would think that a person with a questionable history would be overly sensitive to issues of propriety and integrity. Not so in this case of shameless literary nepotism.

But I’ll have to concede that this marketing exercise did indeed make me think … so I drew my own hypothetical. If I were a castaway and allowed only one book … just what the hell would that book be? It would depend on the circumstances, of course. I’d probably want a book on survival in the wild, or maybe an instruction manual on how to build a seagoing vessel from palm fronds and conch shells. But if it were specifically stipulated that my exile would be permanent, and the book selected would be my sole source of diversion for the balance of my solitary life … I think I’d have to choose the Everyman Library edition of The Selected Essays of George Orwell. Here are the top five reasons why …

1. It’s a turbo-fat book. If I’m marooned for 40 years or so I’m not going to want a little skinny book like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I want something that will require some serious time to plow through … and by the time I begin to re-read it I will have ingested so many words that it will be much like launching on an entirely new work. This book, notes included, is 1370 pages long.

2. Variety. The book seems to have everything. It does not include fiction per se, but many of the essays are written in narrative form and are more compelling than any manufactured story. The author’s eyewitness account of a hanging in Burma is as harrowing and suspenseful as any fictional account could be. Orwell addresses an expansive range of topics … a scan of the table of contents includes discussions of literature, philosophy, politics, history, book reviews, reminiscences and meanderings.

3. Synchronicity with the reader, specifically me. An example … I’ve long been a clandestine admirer of Rudyard Kipling. I realize that his views, even at the turn of the century, were antiquated and often intolerant. But the music of his language is undeniable and irrefutable.

From Orwell (1942) …

“During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling in some sense is still there.”

Touche, brother Orwell, and if you were writing that essay today you could adjust your reference to “five generations” to include about three more.

4. The timelessness of his observations.

On war and pacifism …

“… there is something distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features.  Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences.  But all talk of “limiting” or “humanizing” war is sheer humbug …”

On anti-Semitism and nationalism …

“The point is that something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilization, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.”

5. Sheer credibility. Orwell is not a writer who draws solely from his experiences in a library armchair. He was a man of action as well as a man of letters who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain during their Civil War. He paid for his principles with a near fatal bullet wound to the throat. He does indeed know and understand that of which he speaks. And his words most certainly come directly from the heart.

Final note … any reader with the perseverance to have slugged through all this is welcome to recommend a desert island book in the trackbacks below. But no lists, please.

Hammock tethered to a coconut palm on an uncharted island.  Here's where we'd most likely peruse our only book.

Hammock tethered to a coconut palm on an uncharted island. Here's where we'd most likely peruse our only book.

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Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

There is a lovely species of East African bird that sometimes glides with a swinging, seesaw motion as it makes its final approach for a landing. That odd, fluttering movement has earned it the name “roller.” There are at least four regional sub-species in Kenya and Tanzania that I’m aware of … three of these I’ve photographed, and one I’ve never even seen.

The rufous-crowned, or purple roller, is uncommon and rarely seen on the African plain. It is a gorgeous bird, deep magenta in color with white eyebrows and chestnut colored wings. Its shape is classic roller … with its upright posture, slight forward lean and raised tail, it could easily be mistaken for one of its more common sister sub-species. I’ve laid eyes on the purple roller exactly twice … both instances were in the Maasai Mara and along the same stretch of road. The first sighting was in September of 2008. The bird was perched on a large bush very near my jeep … but it launched just an instant before my 500mm lens locked focus. The second opportunity was almost exactly one year later, and again the bird was perched on a large bush slightly west of the dirt road. It was profiled against a very bright mid-morning sky … and in my excitement, I neglected to adjust my camera’s exposure compensation. I captured several images, all identical, and all, at first glance, horribly underexposed. The bird was far too dark, virtually a silhouette against the powerful Mara sky. But Nikon technology and Adobe Photoshop combined to save me from my own rookie error. The telltale histogram indicated that the camera had indeed captured the requisite information to make an acceptable photo, and by sliding the exposure bar in Photoshop I managed to salvage a lovely picture of the purple roller.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller.  Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller. Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

The Eurasian roller is much more common. I’ve now spotted it in the Serengeti, Amboseli and in the Maasai Mara. It is noticeably brighter than the purple roller, with gray and turquoise tinted wings and a blue-green and yellow underside. Like the purple roller, its tail is abbreviated, with the same general design as the average songbird. Like all rollers, it is an aggressive predator with a predilection for large insects. It is a photographer-friendly bird, often posing on a branch with a fresh grasshopper kill clutched in its beak. Its close cousin, the Abyssinian roller, is similar in color and temperament, but the tail design is distinctly different. The Abyssinian features magnificent, extended tail feathers that would seem to enhance its in-flight “rolling” capabilities. I’m still looking for the Abyssinian.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

It’s unusual that the most beautiful of anything is also the most common, be it rare gem, flower, fish or bird. But a definite exception exists in the case of East Africa’s rollers. The lilac-breasted is common from Kenya to South Africa … and like the Eurasian, it is photographer friendly. The bird is indeed spectacular … and very nearly indescribable. It features every color of the rainbow … it is dazzling when perched on a branch and utterly breathtaking in flight. The lilac’s astounding beauty makes it a profoundly pleasant distraction for the wildlife photographer. It is nearly impossible to drive past a lilac without stopping to capture a few images. On many occasions I’ve foregone opportunities to photograph more popular animals – lions, giraffes, elephants, etc. – because of the near proximity of the lilac-breasted roller. Below are a few, probably too many, randomly selected images of this incomparable bird. Its colors are impressive in photos but majestic in person. The roller alone is well worth the expense of a trip to East Africa.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

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