I fell in love with the BBC Radio 4 program “Desert Island Discs” years ago while living in Scotland, a place that felt a little like a desert island to me, on my own in an unfamiliar place really for the first time. The premise of the show, which first aired in 1942, is that a celebrity guest selects eight records, together with a book and a luxury item, that he or she would most wish to have if marooned on a desert island. (Shakespeare’s complete works and the Bible are always thrown into the bargain.) There’s little by way of apology, much by way of surprise: General Sir Charles Guthrie, then-Chief of the British Defence Staff, selected Liza Minnelli’s “Cabaret” and a surfboard, while Blondie’s Debbie Harry opted for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Few of us have been castaways, but we’ve all spun variations on the exercise of figuring out whatever is essential to the life of our minds. On graduating from West Point or sometimes just before they deploy, former students frequently ask me if I have on hand, or could create, a reading list—indispensable books they can buy or, increasingly, download to their e-readers. Whitney, now a lieutenant home from her first tour in Afghanistan, dubbed it the “House-on-Fire List.” If I smelled smoke, she demanded, which books would I grab first? I like the sense of urgency.

Choosing books for courses can prove tricky, but such selections always have a particular context. I find assembling a House-on-Fire List rather more difficult. First, I like to clarify the rules: Are these books I would take with me, or books I think you ought to take with you? Are these books I read when I was about your age, or books I’ve read since? Are these books about war, peace, or somewhere in between? In other words, whose desert island is this supposed to be? Depending on the answers to these questions, the list varies, but it often includes the following: Virgil’s Aeneid, Montaigne’s Essays, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.

I think my students are perhaps more likely than their civilian peers to ask for a House-on-Fire List because they are more likely to imagine themselves stranded on the hostile desert island of war. It is also true that lists and checklists are ubiquitous in a military culture preoccupied with the activity of preparation. The “professional reading list,” usually dominated by military history, biography, and memoir, is a staple of Army culture. Some lists, like that of the Chief of Staff, are published in an official pamphlet. But individual commanders often make their own recommendations, which they discuss with subordinates in venues of greater or lesser formality. They may build “officer professional development” sessions around an assigned book. The West Point commandant, for example, recently started a book club for cadets, which included Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.

The model for this kind of literary mentorship is Fox Conner, who served in the Army during the first part of the twentieth century and retired as a major general in 1938. Conner was a guide to the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and George Marshall. Stationed in Panama early in his career, Eisenhower worked for Conner and had free-run of his commander’s personal library, where he found, according to a book written by Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan, Plato, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. The two men evidently discussed this reading on horseback while out on maneuvers.

As the Conner-Eisenhower relationship illustrates, in the military—to say nothing of formal education systems—book lists generally come from the top down. This year, I inverted the dynamic by inviting the members of West Point’s plebe class to curate their own literary autobiographies: collections of those cultural artifacts—books, music, and movies—that shaped their sense of who they were and what they might become. The narratives they recorded (and submitted to their professors as MP3s) surprised many faculty members, who felt they got to know their students much better than they had before.

I, too, discovered hidden depths and contours to my students’ intellectual and emotional lives. I learned, for example, that, one of them, R. J., had as a young boy found both his father’s old Marvel comics and an 1868 edition of the Arthurian legends in family attics. The experience of devouring the former and fighting through the latter, its language as yet only half understood, catalyzed his enduring fascination with heroic legends. Another student’s recording, infused with his usual combination of humor and earnestness, revealed his musical priorities: “Beethoven, Bach, no”: Michael chose Led Zeppelin, first introduced to him by his older brother, because they had written the best music “in the history of forever.” That’s my kind of desert island. Michael also listed Animal Farm as the book that had the greatest influence on him. Forced to read Orwell’s novel in high school, he read it again a year later because it changed the way he saw the world: “You think these pigs are going to run a beautiful farm, better than Farmer Jones could,” he explained, but then everything falls apart. Michael saw in the pigs’ transformation the ease with which, “you can end up becoming … what you set out to destroy.” That’s useful information for a castaway confronted with the problem of building a new society; maybe it will come in handy for Michael one day, too.

As I listened to the recordings, I felt very much the way I used to while listening to “Desert Island Discs” all those many years ago. There’s the intimacy of the recorded voice—it’s as if you’re privy to some secret—but it isn’t only that. After a semester digesting the books assigned them (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Dickens’s Great Expectations, among them), the cadets found themselves constructing their own list of great works—great not because some authority had told them so, but great because they had once made a singular impression. The recordings and subsequent discussions made it clear that the archaeological exercise of assembling such a list surprised the cadets as well by disclosing influences long forgotten and revealing the origins of their assumptions and ambitions. Of course, it was never the fact that Prime Minister John Major chose Diana Ross and Anthony Trollope or that Elvis Costello selected James Thurber and Henry Purcell that mattered; it was always the why.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense. 

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