The Books I Would Take

Twice this week, an interesting question came up.

A few nights ago my wife had a nightmare. In it there was an unspecified terrorist attack on Atlanta, and we were forced to evacuate. We only had a few minutes to decide what to take with us. She shared the dream with me the following morning, and we talked about what would be important enough to grab: Rhiannon’s meds? My laptop? Family photos? My eyes gazed over the literally thousands of books that fill our house. I wondered, which books would I take?

Then yesterday, I read a Cistercian pamphlet called “The Tragic Story of the Lives of Our Jewish Brothers and Sisters.” It’s part of a series called Cistercian Witnesses of Our Time, about Cistercian monks and nuns of the last century or so who have been martyred or otherwise lived lives of heroic faith and virtue. This particular pamphlet tells the tale of a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism in the Netherlands during the early years of the twentieth century, with six (!) of the children eventually becoming Trappists. When the Nazis conquered Holland and experienced resistance from the bishops, they targeted Jews who had become Catholic, and five of these brothers and sisters were forcibly removed from the monasteries (in the middle of the night, of course) and eventually dispatched to Auschwitz, where they all perished.

Part of the drama of this story lies in the fact that these Jewish converts knew they were targets even before they were taken into custody. One of the sisters had previously written “I’ve put everything in order. I’m ready to leave. I only want to take these books with me (breviary, missal, New Testament, The Imitation of Christ). That’s enough for me.”

So for the second time in less than a week I was faced with this question: what books would I take with me if a crisis forced me to leave my home, possibly forever?

To answer this question, I have to begin with the assumption that such a move could only be taken under duress, and I would be limited in the number of books I could carry. Thank God for paperbacks, especially the old mass-market kind that are both lightweight and small. Because most of them are paperback, I think I could get away with taking ten books, all of which would easily fit in a knapsack with a combined weight of less than ten pounds:

Of course, this is a painful choice, for even with the luxury of ten books, look at all I’d be leaving behind: no John of the Cross, no Teresa of Avila, no Walter Hilton or Pseudo-Dionysius or the Desert Fathers. My list only includes Christian titles, which means no Celtic mythology, no Ken Wilber, no Buddhist wisdom. Sigh. With the necessity borne of duress, each book would have to matter. Of course, for Christians (and students of Christian mysticism), the Bible naturally goes first, and thankfully it can be a tool for recalling the wisdom of so many others: to read the life of Moses would bring to mind the theology of Gregory of Nyssa; the Song of Songs would remind me of Bernard of Clairvaux; the letters of Paul would recall the work of N.T. Wright or George Maloney. Meanwhile, the Liturgy would be the lifeline to my continued daily spiritual practice (I didn’t include a missal simply because I’m not a priest, and so “my” daily prayer naturally flows out of the breviary). As a Lay-Cistercian, it would be natural for me also to keep my rule close to my heart, which is why the Rule of Benedict — smallest of my ten books — would be essential. These three books form a trinity of titles that, even if all the others would have to be left behind, I would most want to carry with me.

To round out my ten books, it makes the most sense to select titles that I believe would reward continued reflection: so naturally, the two greatest western mystics (in my humble opinion), Julian of Norwich and John Ruusbroec, would head the list. Next would come two anthologies featuring the work of my two favorite twentieth century spiritual authors (and the writers who most directly inspire me), Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Since these four books all are filled with insight and imagery that would nurture me in a theoretical, kataphatic way, my next two titles would help me in a more apophatic, practical way: The Cloud of Unknowing from the west, and the Philokalia anthology from the east. These books are basically manuals for the ongoing practice of silent prayer of the heart, and as such would be (pardon the pun) beneficial beyond words.

For my final book, I’ve chosen something that might surprise a lot of folks: a children’s book, and one of the lesser acclaimed Narnia titles at that. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is from a strictly literary perspective a rather unexciting book — it is merely an episodic tale of a marvelous sea voyage. But I’ve chosen it partially because, since the Christian life is all about becoming like a child (Matthew 18:3), at least one children’s book ought to be in my knapsack. And so I chose this particular one simply because it is my favorite of the Narnia tales, one that I believe encapsulates in symbolic form the life of Christian deification — the mystical journey. For the narrative structure of Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis used a folkloric idiom borrowed from the ancient Celts: the immram, or mystical sea-voyage to the otherworld, which had its origin in pagan myth and was eventually Christianised as the legendary voyage of Brendan. Those of you who have been reading my blog and other writings for more than three years will understand why this would be so important to me.

So there you have it: my “desert island books.” God forbid that any of us will ever have to be refugees, but just for the sake of self-knowledge: which books would you take?

Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Sue

    Wow. This is so courageous! Honestly. I can’t even bear the thought of pondering something like that :)

  • Treasa

    The only book on your list I’ve ever read was the Bible but I plan on changing that.

  • Laura

    Okay – here are the 10 books I would take with me:
    The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
    The Homeric Hymns (any translation I grabbed first) by Homer
    The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso
    Watership Down by Richard Adams
    The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
    Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
    Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter by Karl Kerenyi
    Pagan Meditations by Ginette Paris
    Anansi the Spider Man – by ? – Specifically the tattered copy I’ve had since I was a child…it is takes of Anansi from the Caribbean as opposed to Africa. The copy I have is actually from some library in Michigan. Shhh…don’t tell. I don’t actually know where we got it.

  • Carl McColman

    Have you read Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing”? Fascinating book – I read it in graduate school.

  • Zel Thorne

    Awesome….I know the first would be My Bible…I
    have to make a quick review..

  • Jon

    Here goes, off the top of my head:

    The Bible
    The Upanishads
    The Gospel of Thomas
    I Am That, by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
    Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card,
    Xenocide by Orson Scott Card,
    Children of the Mind, by Orson Scott Card,
    Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury,
    A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle,
    A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle.

  • Carl McColman

    I loved Dandelion Wine when I read it, so many years ago. Thanks for mentioning it, this makes me want to read it again.

  • arulba

    If terrorists struck Central Texas, I have a really difficult time thinking my first thought would be what books I’d take with me. My immediate thought is that I’d gather all of my children’s art work and the pets. :) Of course I have a huge library on my palm pilot and my computer so taking one or the other with an additional supply of batteries would be the ideal choice.

    I know for a fact I wouldn’t take the Bible. That has changed in the past 5 years because I’ve already read it several times through. (But it’s on both my PP and my Lap Top.)

    But let’s say I had to take 10 books from my bookshelf:

    Ray Bradbury’s Greatest Writings because Ray Bradbury has a way of seeing through the darkness

    The Idiot by Dostoevsky (because I haven’t read it yet and it’s long and a book I’d likely read over and over again based on what I know about it)

    George MacDonald’s Complete Fairy Tales

    George MacDonald’s Complete Unspoken Sermons

    George MacDonald – Phantaste

    C.S. Lewis – The Essential Writings (which includes Perelandra which I haven’t read yet)

    Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche (because that is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read about the ability of humanity to function outside of what its’ used to)

    Thomas Merton’s Asian Journals

    The Life You Save May Be Your Own, An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie

    A Course in Miracles

  • Carl McColman

    You’d get along well with the abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit — his favorite theologian is George MacDonald. Are you familiar with Johannesen Press? It’s a small family owned publisher that produces beautiful, hand-bound editions of MacDonald’s works. If you don’t already know them, you’re in for a treat — and when you do talk to them tell them Carl from the Abbey Store in Conyers sent you. Speaking of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, it is mentioned several times in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Flannery O’Connor only lived about 40 miles from Conyers and visited the abbey regularly, and both Walker Percy and Dorothy Day made retreats at the monastery. And since Holy Spirit is a daughter-house of Gethsemani where Merton lived, that means all four of Elie’s subjects had a relation to the monastery where I work. Which I believe is truly awesome. :-)

  • Virginia

    Interesting thought. After pondering, I think we shoud exchange lists. Then those of us who can’t make up their mind, can take what is not on the list. We can all agree to meet at a central place and have the best library of forced refugees ever. Oh, Carl, I have to bring John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Thanks for this exercise. It is great.

  • phil foster

    WHICH Bible???

  • Carl McColman

    If it were in pb, my first choice would be the New Jerusalem Bible, Saints Devotional Edition. But it’s not a pb, and remember, this thought experiment is all about becoming a refugee. So I’d probably take the NAB medium sized edition. Yes, I know it’s a clunky translation. But if I only get one Bible, I want one with 73 books in it, thank you very much…

  • arulba

    Thanks Carl! I’ll definitely check them out! It is truly awesome that Elie’s subjects all had a relationship to where it is you work! Very cool!!

  • Sarah

    Oh, my goodness, I’ve been fretting about my books all weekend. Like Arnold Loeb, I’ve “Books to the ceiling, books to the sky….” I don’t want to let go of any of them, not one single one. Although, my first concern in an evacuation would be one very large dog and three cats. Here’s my book list — at least for today:

    Bible, RSV for me, with apocrypha, hefty but essential.
    Rule of St. Benedict (I follow it as a layman, too)
    St. Augustine’s Prayer Book (a small Anglican gem I use often)
    Office Book (I have the ones I use memorized, but the book itself is irreplaceable)
    Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom
    Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender
    Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane Monk (if you haven’t read it, do!)
    Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila
    Something by James Blish, probably either Cities in Flight or A Case of Conscience
    My journal


  • Carl McColman

    What a great list, Sarah! Yes, Magic Monastery is wonderful, as is pretty much everything else on your list (not familiar with James Blish, except for the “Star Trek” books which I devoured when I was a kid).

  • Liadan

    The Virginia Pilot has an article in this Sunda’s paper about hotel’s providing a Spiritual Menu. You choose if you want the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc in your room. They have nearly every religious book except something from the Pagans. I would choose Cei Seriths (sp?) Pagan Book of Prayer. Its one of the most beautiful books of prayers I’ve ever read.


  • Shannon

    I’d take my Jerusalem bible which is just bigger than palm-sized, mostly because I love the layout and the translation.

    –The Journey and the Dream by Murray Bodo, ofm. The story of Francis of Assisi. Probably the one book I’ve bought and given away too many times to count.
    –Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
    –Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
    –The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor
    –The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Wylie
    –My Life with the Saints Vol. 2 by James Martin, sj. Okay, so it isn’t written yet, but I like the original so much I figured I’d put in my request for a second volume.
    –anything by Carlo Carretto
    –the Abbott edition of the Documents of Vatican II The original on my shelf cost 95 cents.
    –a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry

  • Sarah

    Any Catholic with a taste for science fiction should read James Blish, who was a Catholic layman himself. Some of his books are dated now as he died very young of cancer in 1974, but he explored spiritual ideas that should resonate with anyone who has mystical leanings. Cities in Flight is one of my favorites, but a rather strange tetralogy he wrote has aged better: Dr. Mirabilis, the story of the great Franciscan Roger Bacon, Black Easter and the Day After Judgement, both chilling fantasies, and A Case of Conscience, science fiction. He considered them a tetralogy because they all share a central theme. And I too devoured the Star Trek books; they were better than the shows!


  • Carl McColman

    Sigh. As if my “must read” list wasn’t already long enough… :-)

  • Michelle

    Fascinating exercise. The key question for me is which books would provide the most fulfilling spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic food. These would be books I’ve received as gifts at each reading. So, as a start, this Presbyterian would take:

    -The Bible
    -a hymnal (but I’ll have to think about which one)
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics
    -Calvin’s Institutes
    -L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time
    -L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door
    -The Brothers Karamazov (because I would have to take something new, and two of my favorite mentor theologians have expressed eloquent theology of grace with its aid)
    -Presbyterian Book of Daily Prayer
    -Julian of Norwich’s Showings
    -Jonathan Edward’s Charity and Its Fruits

    The thought experiment is interesting, isn’t it? After all, the books we would carry as refugees would be shared with others, and we would be devour the chance to read the books of others. As I think about my list, I think about things that I could share with others, and as I see the others lists in this comment sections, I like to think I would run into you while we were….on the run…and we can have a shared feast of words pointing to sublime things. Just the sort of food we would need as refugees.


  • Shannon

    I should add Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, also known around our parish as “Jesuits in Space.”

  • Beth

    Sheesh already.
    You all are out the door and down in the Catacombs and I have to catch up.

    A Course in Miracles
    A compendium of Hafiz and/ or Rumi
    A Mary Oliver collection
    House of Belonging by David Whyte
    A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton
    To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue
    Turtle Island by Gary Snyder
    Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh
    And just for ‘fun’:
    Any of Terry Tempest Williams books (probably Refuge)
    Sky Burial by Xinran
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    Black Like Me by Griffin
    A Wrinkle in Time by l’engle
    The Wind in the Willows by Grahame, et al (unabridged)
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CSLewis
    A biography or 2: Gold Meir, Martin Luther King, Gandhi–somebody strong and resilient

    Thanks for the exercise…phew.

  • Kate Stansfield

    I have only just discovered this web site through reading Findoing Sanctuaryby Abbot Christopher Jamieson of Worth Abbey England and feel I will be surfing it quite a lot, It IS lovely

  • Donnie

    Wow Carl, I guess it says something about the kind of people who are drawn to your blog that you’ve gotten so many post on a topic dealing with which books one feels are most essential to one.

    On first reflecting on this I thought I had some ready answers:
    The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (I know, very Anglican)
    The Gayan and The Heart of Sufism, both collections of writings by Hazrat Inayat Khan
    Two Flutes Playing:A Spiritual Journeybook for Gay Men and Revealations for a New Millennium by Andrew Ramer, both for their practical and grounded spirituality
    The Light of Dawn:Daily Readings from the Holy Qur’an translated by Camille Helminsk, beautiful interpretations of the sacred text by a woman Sufi
    The Bhagavad Gita, probably the Stephen Mitchell translation for its poetic richness
    Son of Man by Andrew Harvey, His meditations on the eight Thresholds of Christ are regular reading for me in Lent and Holy Week each year
    and Leaves of Grass, leaving Uncle Walt behind would be like leaving family behind.

    But on further reflection I think there are other things that might be even more essential in that kind of situation then the books I so love and cherish.
    The Bible and The BCP would mainly be to say the daily office and I know those well enough, including prayers, canticles and a few Psalms, along with enough short quotes of Scripture that are rich enough to wear well that I could continue saying the offices, even if in an abbreviated and somewhat repetitive form. I would just have to dig deeper into those familiar passages and prayers. I can also recite a few short suras of the Qur’an, including the Fatiha which is said to contain all the essence of the whole Qur’an in seven verses and I can quote a few key lines from the Gita. All the rest of the books, as much as I love them, are not essential to my spiritual practice.

    Instead I would take my 33 knot prayer rope and my 100 knot prayer rope; both of which I use for different practices. Surely in such circumstances, the world would be in need of prayer and these help to keep my prayer grounded and incarnational.
    My three Native American flutes, each one precious in it’s own way, because with these I pray with my breath and am prayed by the Sacred Breath with groanings too deep for words.
    I would also take my Heart and Wings altar cloth, a cup and a piece of amber, which are used in the Sufi Healing Service for which I am ordained as a Conductor and my one book, The Gayan, mainly because I have the Healing Service written in it. These because surely healing would also be needed in such a time.
    And I would take my San Damiano crucifix so that I remember always to look for the face of my Beloved and to seek His gaze and as a reminder that death never has the last word.
    So the three main strands from which my spiritual life is woven would be represented: Christian, Sufi and Earth-centered.

  • Laurel Massé

    Not easy. And yet very easy.

    The Bible, probably NRSV with Apocrypha (Anglicized version). I have a lovely little one.
    The Book of Common Prayer
    The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Oxford has a small one)
    Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (printed music)
    Hildegard von Bingen (printed music)
    A good English dictionary
    A good French dictionary
    Another Bible, in French
    Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

    And a lot of paper and many pens and pencils, and a list of the other books you all are bringing so I know who has brought Julian and Teresa of Avila.

  • Kelby Carlson

    This is tough. I’m less of a mystic than some of you here, so my list is going to be a bit different. (I’m also quite a lot younger than some of you, I suspect, further contributing to the chasm.)

    1. The Bible, probably the New Revised Standard Version

    2. Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Newhaus

    3. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

    4. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

    5. A prayer book (honestly, I’m still looking for a good one that’s in an electronic format–I’m blind, so I can really read stuff in print.)

    6. The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

    7. Paradise Lost by John Milton

    8. The Divine Comedy by Dante

    9. The Story of King Arthur and his Knights by Howard Pyle

    10. Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Chirstian Poetry (DOn’t remember the editor)

  • Darrell Grizzle

    This thought experiment reminded me of a passage I read recently in a book by Peter Kreeft (“Three Philosophies of Life”):

    I have a friend who camps in the Maine woods each summer. One day he met an old hermit who had not lived in “civilization” for forty years. He seemed uncannily wise… and when my friend asked him where he got his wisdom, he pulled from his pocket the only book he had had for forty years. It was a tattered, yellow copy of Ecclesiastes. Only Ecclesiastes. That one book had been enough for him. Perhaps “civilization” is so unwise because nothing is ever enough for it. The old hermit had stayed in one place, physically, and spiritually, and explored its depths; civilization, meanwhile, had moved restlessly on, skimming over the surface of the great deeps. While civilization was reading the Times, he was reading the eternities.

    ~ Peter Kreeft