A Poser

Over at normblog today, Norman Geras asks a vexatious question:

Not exactly a new normblog poll…

… but I would really like to hear from you on how you would react to being offered the following choice. You are going to some distant and lonely and low-tech place where you will have to spend the rest of your days, and you can:

– (a) either take 100 books you have already read and which you may then re-read without limit, those being the only books you will ever get to see;

– (b) or not take any of the books you have already read, however much you may love some of them, but instead have a free and regular choice from all the books in the world you haven’t yet read, to be supplied to you by the Mobile Library for Isolated Readers in Distant Places.

Would you go for (a) or (b)?

My first response was just to wave off the question as too capricious to bother with. But then it began to nag at me. If I had to choose, which would it be?

It seems natural enough to pick (b); after all, the number of books one has never read is, in effect, almost all the books ever written, minus a paltry few, and anyway you’ve already read the ones you’ve already read. But the books I have read are such an essential part of what I am that the idea of never being able to commune with them ever again — to re-read a beloved favorite, or to refresh my memory of some vital and formative passage — seems such a cruel deprivation that I think I might very well choose (a).

I just don’t know. It’s still eating at me.

Which would you choose?


  1. Didi says

    It’s such a haunting question really…
    I mean on one end, I’ve read a multitude of books that I LOVE, and can’t see myself not having read them.
    But if I have to think about it I’d go for (b)…I believe there are so many beautiful books that are yet to come out, and to miss out the chance on reading them would be devastating to me. Partly because I read really quickly (and once you’re familiar with a book you tend to skip pages and go to the parts that resonate with you or that really touched you, at least that’s the case with me!), and the 100 books wouldn’t last long with me.
    I’d go with (b) and pray that I get to have a new good collection of books to read, and new favourites as well :)

    Posted January 19, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    I’d pick (b) because it is the only way I could fulfill my lifelong ambition of finishing Proust.

    Posted January 19, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  3. Chris G says

    It’s an infinite universe and I’m a forward looking individual… B with no regrets

    Posted January 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  4. The rest of my days, eh? How many are those? Anyway, I’m glad that nobody posed this question to me — I just wouldn’t be able to choose.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 19, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    I hate this question.

    Okay. (A). I’ll have Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Churchill, Dickens, Orwell, Darwin, Plato, Gurdjieff, and plenty of others. I’ll have much of the very best of literature, history, philosophy, science, and more. And I’m already 53.

    Posted January 19, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  6. Didi says

    I’m not quite sure why you’re referring to your age…if it happens to do with how much time you’ve got on this Earth, I’d really beg to differ on this point.
    None of us knows how long we have, I’m 24 myself but that doesn’t mean anything in terms of life :)
    I look at your choices and I see what in these days are termed as classics (Literature-wise anyway), and I can see why you pick (A). I think somebody who loves GOOD literature might not find anything close to that level in today’s works. Not saying its 100% lacking, but it’s not comprarable to the works you’re quoting

    Posted January 20, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Didi. It was not an easy choice, and I’m sure Norman knew that answering it would require a revealing self-examination. I’m glad I didn’t just wave it aside.

    As for lifespan, you’re right of course in principle, but not in terms of actuarial realities. To understand more deeply why a person like me would choose (A) at this point in his life, you might like to read this.

    Posted January 20, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

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