Desert Island Books

By Jamis H. MacNiven

My favorite book is Moby-Dick. If you are reading this article and (and you must be, right?) I suggest you cease instanta! and, get a copy of Moby-Dick (and yes, for reasons forever unclear the title does have a hyphen) and read the book

“Call me Ishmael…”  It’s all about guys doing guy stuff like skinning whales, drowning; and features a cruel broken sea captain smiting anyone who gets in his path on his way to rain hellfury on the leviathan. The book came out in 1851 and was a failure at the time selling only a few hundred copies. His book Typee did well but he was never to repeat that success and ended up as a customs clerk mostly forgotten in his lifetime. I follow the first edition price of this book and right now you can buy the copy which belonged to Jim Morrison for $39,900. Just saying (help me convince my wife).    

Later, when Herman was getting quite moldy, he was heralded as a man before his time perfectly exemplifying the aggressive American Spirit. But really, he grapples with a pretty gloomy side of humanity. There’s no denying the spectacular prose so if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it recently, try it as an audio or even see the terrific movie with Gregory Peck.

Moby-Dick may be my favorite book but the book that has had the biggest impact on me is The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapeldon. I have passed out dozens of copies but almost no one has heard of it and no one has gotten back to me with their review except for Jonathan Unikowski, a true intellectual. Reid Hoffman told me it was on his nightstand and maybe I have propelled him to read it by now. This is a science fiction story written in 1930. Arthur C. Clark said it was the most influential book he ever read and it sure knocked me back in my chair. It’s about the next two billion years of humankind from 1930—into the deep, deep future and Olaf’s imagined 18 species of Man. It has no characters and no real plot but is, in essence, a history of the future.

It is more than a mere novel. Olaf predicts the proliferation of nuclear energy and its civilization-ending consequence and he anticipates the supercomputer. He also foresees or is actually the inventor of the solar sail, a very real piece of today’s technology. He gave George Dyson the idea for Dyson Spheres and forecasts genetic engineering. He was friends with and influenced Jorge Luis Borges, Bertrand Russel, Churchill and Virginia Wolff.

So why have you not heard of this book? Well it’s a tough read and is a bit like work but is totally worth the candle just to see how far this writer’s mind can roam.

Jamis’ parents

Hand in hand with this is H.G. Wells The Time Machine. It was the first book about time travel and is still at the top of the pile in this department. The 1960 movie is pretty good too and stars Jamis MacNiven’s parents Rod and Evette.

While we are on fiction Alice in Wonderland certainly deserves attention. Lewis Carroll is as profound and confounding as he was 150 years ago. 


Before Adam is about time travel into the past and is Jack London’s imagined pre-human apelike tribe living in the trees. It reads like a fever dream.

Earth Abides was written by George Stewart, a Berkeley professor. Amazingly, I knew his son in Woodside before he went to the land of no return but I never knew he was the son of one of my favorite authors. The book is the story of a man who lives on Berkeley’s North Side. After a bad rattlesnake bite he returns from the mountains to find (nearly) everyone gone. He continues to live in his childhood home for the next 60 years as civilization’s creations decay around him and the small tribe of remainders.

And, oh yes, Don Quixote. Written in 1605 it has been called the book that launched the idea of the novel. I tried twice to read it but each time I backed out. Please read it for me if you get time and give me the gist. But life is long and I’m hoping to be bedridden eventually so I can crack this egg. There is a spectacular documentary about Terry Gilliam’s 25-year quest to make the movie. He finally did get it made. It’s an unwatchable disjunctive mess. Speaking of Terry Gilliam: do not watch Tidelands. It is actually not a mess, in fact it is quite well made but I’m telling you DO NOT WATCH TIDELANDS! It is easily the most disturbing film I have ever seen. I won’t even tell you much about it but I can say that seeing Jeff Bridges die from an overdose and rot in chair over the course of the summer isn’t nearly the worst part of the movie. No one has ever seen this movie but me (oh, and Dale Djerassi). We took the bullet for you. You have been warned!

Here’s a fun read: The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum by Rebecca Loncraine. Baum was such a powerful writer, and his Oz books so popular, that his mere death didn’t stop the output which his publisher managed to continue for years after Frank went to Oz. Many of the Oz books were written beside the pool of the Del Coronado Hotel in Del Mar, CA. All he had to do was imagine the hotel to be green and he had his city of Oz.

A new book worthy of your attention is The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee. This is the remarkable story of Columbus’s son who was with him on the 4th voyage. Father and son and about a dozen others were shipwrecked in a hulk for nearly a year on a beach in the Caribbean before being rescued. Hector Columbus later amassed the greatest library of the mid Renaissance. Instead of collecting the grand and expensive books of the time he went for small ephemeral publications allowing a singular glimpse into life as it was really lived 500 years ago. His library was so large that he had to come up with a system to keep track of his collection so he devised the first cross-referenced search engine. He traveled widely throughout Europe and noted where and when he bought each book, and how much he paid. His library was lost but recently a catalogue of his books has surfaced which had not been opened for 350 years. We now know what the books were and what the relative currency values of the several countries were. The shipwreck in the title refers to an accident which sent over 2,000 of his books to the bottom of the sea in a storm, a tragedy he lamented his entire life.

As a preamble I suggest Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus by S. E. Morison. Columbus set off from Spain which in 1492 was the longest voyage out of sight of land in history. I mean in recorded history (a redundant phrase). The fact is all histories are equally valid as they are what historians report, which is often at odds with what actually happened. The trip lasted 31 days. I have a lemon in the fridge older than that. It might not sound like a big deal but no European had any idea what lay to the west.

In one of the great mistakes of all time Chris never gave up the idea that he had arrived in India. If he had landed further north he would have called the locals Chinese. Columbus was a hard man and there is much to object to about him. He introduced New World slavery to Europe and was something of a lunatic but he made sure things happened.

Closer to home is the story of how California suddenly became the most talked about place on earth in 1849. Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire by Bayard Taylor is the definitive work on the California Gold Rush written by one of the first easterners to witness the event. Horace Greely of the New York Herald is famous for saying, “Go west young man.” This is the man he sent west. And you can’t know California history without Two Years Before the Mast, the first influential book about the Golden State by Richard Henry Dana.

If you are as crazy about Roman history as I am two indispensable works are SPQR by Mary Beard and Rome by Robert Hughes, SPQR takes us deep into this grand and complex society which lasted over a 1,000 years. If you don’t like the book you can sit on it in your car to see better over the dash as it is 30-years-ago-Manhattan-phonebook big. As is the Hughes but he takes a different tack. His book Rome is all about the art of the Republic, The Empire, through the Middle Ages, The Renaissance to the present day where the legacy has finally withered. A great movie on the dissipated Roman contemporary art scene is Palo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a film of incomparable lushness.

If you like things Roman then don’t miss Patrick Hunt’s new book Hannibal. In 218 BC Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with elephants and kicked the Roman legions six ways to Sunday. He spent nearly 20 years in Italy and finally simply ran out resources. If he hadn’t, I think he would still be shooting out their windows and keying their Fiats today. Patrick has examined on foot over thirty places Hannibal might have crossed. This Stanford archeologist lectures on all topics ancient Mediterranean at the Stanford extension night classes. I’ve taken several of them and I give him an A+ every time.

Further south we have the Greek city depicted in The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard. In about 330 BC Alexander spent only a single day laying out the city in a grid with white flour. For the next three hundred years it was the cradle of learning and was famous for its vast library. Experts say the volumes topped 700,000 or possibly a million books and were it not for the destruction of the library we might have avoided the Dark Ages. Scrolls were called books but they had bound books too, with spines and hard covers, termed codices. What is known is that we only have about 10% or less of the ancient texts. I guess we’re lucky to have as much as we do. Of the ancient Greeks and Romans we have a total of zero books. All that came down to us were the many times copied books used to teach rhetoric in schools down through the ages. This instruction in rhetoric persisted into the 20th century. What the heck is rhetoric anyway?

I’m particularly fond of the idea of floating in that sea of air over the earth in a helium, hydrogen, anhydrous ammonia, coal gas or hot air balloon – anything that will get me up. I have flown is some pretty fine airships. A book which tells the story of lighter-than-air is Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes about man’s quest to sail in the sky. It’s an amazing history and trust me, it didn’t all work out as well for some of the pioneers as it did for me.

Sailing literarily on the saltwater sea is great fun too. A 19th century tale is Cochrane: Britannia’s Sea Wolf by Thomas Donald. This is the chronicle of a man who was half pirate, half military commander and a man who swashed and buckled grandly through life. Gritty, high seas life at its best.

I haven’t a predilection for novels (except Moby-Dick) but I’ve plenty of time for the philosophy of science. A great place to start trying to understand the modern age is the now 24-year-old book by Kevin Kelly titled Out of Control. It is the essential text on how emergent systems have an agenda at odds with the maker’s intention. This book was an early wakeup call that things are not what they seem. Kevin is cofounder of Wired Magazine and was one of the editors of Stewart Brand’s series of Whole Earth Catalogues which in years to come will be what researchers use to figure out how we hippies lived and is a critical brick in the foundation upon which the internet is anchored.

For a romp through quantum theory the go-to physicist is Sean Carroll with The Big Picture. Sean lays out his understanding of how he thinks reality is wired and because he believes in the many worlds theory it is a wild ride. Check out his Mindscape podcast too. Another book to stir in the mix is The Order of Time by Carol Rovelli.

There are countless books emerging every day on quantum theory, artificial intelligence and the power of the network effect. One not to miss is Is God a Mathematician? by Mario Livio. Is math discovered or invented?

Many of you reading this are working diligently on the future where things will run more efficiently using super powerful self-assembling computer programs and creating biological ‘advancements’ that they hope will foster a new golden age. Well, the more likely prospect is that in the short term the majority of the world’s workers will be out of a job. In this country many folks think people without jobs are weak willed, lazy and, well, losers. This attitude might change when the wave of jobless breaks. But wait you say—employment is at all-time high. Right, and Jack and Jill were at the top of the hill… Look at the ever widening economic chasm between the haves and have nots. Combine this with unregulated gene manipulation including doomsday pathogens and the still looming nuclear option and you have a real poop sandwich. Think about this: If the power grid goes down hard —food riots will start within the hour. Enjoy your meal. It may be your last. Boy, this got dark in a hurry. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” “These are not the droids you seek.” “All you’ll feel is a little pinch.”

And if you like end of the world scenarios (and who doesn’t) I recommend Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, by James Barrat. Read this late at night and just pray the sun comes up.

Amazingly, thinking about robots and machines taking over is not a new notion. In Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots she unpacks the ancient Greek ideas of metallic, all powerful robots, self-driving vehicles, universal knowledge and even sex bots. The Greeks talked a good deal about this. They weren’t actual inventions but rather aspects of their mythology. The gods had robots and they knew how to use them.

But it wasn’t all imaginary. Hero of Alexandria was a polymath who lived about 2,000 years ago. He taught at Alexandria’s university and wrote many books on mathematics, geometry and engineering which were read until medieval times. His most notable invention was the Aeolipile, the first steam turbine. Other devices included automated machines for temples and theaters, surveying instruments, military siege engines and weapons and, best of all, the coin operated vending machine and the cuckoo clock. I don’t have a good single book on this guy but he is worth your attention.

Speaking of final inventions, Roger McNamee’s new best seller (much of it written at Buck’s) is called Zucked. He mentored Mark and as Facebook started to be used as a tool for trolls, hackers and other bad actors he warned Mark and Sheryl Sandberg that FB should not be a grocery cart that you mindlessly load social poison into and merrily proceed through the checkout without consequences. He explains that it has become a tool facilitating actions contrary to the public good. He also levels this charge at Google, Twitter and others. Apple is an exception to this because their code of secrecy around their employees and product development extends to their customers. Apple sells product to you but with Facebook you are the product being sold.

When I’ve done my hard time in the science and  society merry-go-round I like a good biography. If you’re into Hollywood legends there is no better book than The Ragman’s Son, the autobiography of Kirk Douglas. It was written decades ago but it really takes you back to the old time Hollywood. A nice guy and the last of the old guard, he is now 102. And his wife is still upright and just rounded 100 herself. Kirk, you cradle robber.

And if you like reading about writers go no further than John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography by Jackson Benson. Did you know he wrote East of Eden in Los Gatos in a house he built which is still there? When he was at Stanford he used to drive up Old La Honda Road (then known as just La Honda Rd.) to the coast at Pescadero. Then there’s Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone. This is the bio of Jack London, one of my favorites. These guys led amazing lives. London was the highest paid and most famous American author in 1900 as was Steinbeck in the 1950s. London was continually broke and perennially drunk. He died of wretched excess at the age of 40 but not before writing enough books to span four feet of shelving.

I think Irving Stone’s reputation, much like James Michener’s, will have a rise one day. Because they wrote big romantic books often sold in airports some critics decry them as overly sentimental. Well the reputation of Albert Bierstadt, one of the monumental painters of the 19th century, declined after his death much like Melville’s. Until recently Norman Rockwell was considered a minor painter. But we elevate these cranks—Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and the dribbler, Jack Pollock. Particularly Pollock. You can revere his application of thrown paint all you want but isn’t it really mass hysteria that makes his canvases sell for 140 million?

This is Michael Jackson’s baby chimp, Bubbles, doing a ‘Pollock’

Am I an art critic? Yes, and so are you. We all get to like and dislike any art. For me I need a certain amount of craft. You know, put-in-the-work, for gosh sakes. Of course Van Gogh did some of his most famous paintings in just one day. But he painted with his guts (and dash of his left ear). It took so much out of him that he took himself off. Pollock died in his sleep on a mattress stuffed with money.

Jeff Koons with Bubbles and Mike

And since we’re on art, I’m a big fan of Jeff Koons who really knows craft. His life story is ha-larious and he ranges from playful porno to serious kid’s toys. Say what you will, but the man has range.

Back to books: Some books that make deep impressions on me are more journalistic like Chasing the Scream by J. Hari. This is probably the most shocking book I’ve ever read. It’s about how the drug wars started in the U.S. in 1906 when a lobbyist got heroin banned as a prescription drug for pain. But Congress failed to inform the doctors, many of whom went to prison. It turned out it was a Mob fix from the beginning and addiction went from being a negligible situation to an epidemic and a big moneymaker for criminals. It was then that those taking the drugs were stigmatized and became perceived of as bad people who did bad things as opposed to people in pain. It was all done to make a buck.

Part of my reading is to try and make sure I cover the bases. I jsut finished Leibnitz, An Intellectual Biography, by Maria Antognazza. This book is a lot of work but Liebnitz is probably the most important of the undiscussed philosophers. It was he who first wrote about the idea of characteristica universalis or the alphabet of human thought. In the late 1600s, as a teenager, he conceived of a system that would gather all ideas, histories, sciences, music—indeed all concepts into one place using a single special language. You know, the internet. And oh, he also co-invented calculus along with Newton. He was also the first to write about the “Primordial Existential Question”, why there is a Universe as opposed to not. He was also said to be a pretty good cook. Hey, I’m in the restaurant business We could have used him on busy days.

So this brings us back to Moby-Dick with the closing passage as Ishmael bobs on the sea clinging to Queequeg’s coffin “And I alone escaped to tell thee.”

“So students, test on Wednesday. It counts for half your grade, don’t be late.”