Recently I realized that a large proportion of my friends are librarians. Go figure. One of these friends, in an effort to engage the residents of the small town in which she works, posted on a community bulletin board the five books she’d most like to have with her on a “desert island.” She asked readers to share their list of books as well.
Some of the responses she received reflected on books that would be desired on a “dessert island,” although I imagine that if one were on a dessert island, one would probably be too distracted by the terrain to get much reading done. A few questioned her use of “desert” instead of “deserted.”
A “desert island” is an island made of desert (sand). A “deserted island” is an island without inhabitants. Neither is incorrect in this usage, but it makes more sense to me that you would want five superlative books more if you were all alone on an island, no matter the climate or soil quality. Also, you can probably get away with leaving out the “stranded on a” if you use “deserted,” although it does paint a more vivid picture to leave it in.
Asking about books someone wants on a “desert island” without mentioning the “stranded” situation sounds more like you’re asking about their “Top 5 Beach Reads of the Summer.” Does being in sand call up images of reading? It does, for some.
Does being totally alone elicit urges to take up company with a good book? Most definitely for me, and I usually have several books that I’m reading at once. One of them happens to be a Christmas gift from my husband: (Bryan) Garner’s Modern American Usage, which reminds us that “desert” as a verb can be used in reference to people and places, but never to “works for plans or efforts.” For that scenario, “abandon” is the correct word.
I’m not going to reply to her post on the bulletin board, lest I shock readers with my absolute geekiness, for the books I’d most want on a deserted desert island include not only Garner’s tome but Roget’s Thesaurus, the Holy Grail of word association. Roget’s is pure poetry to me — where else can you look up “deception” and find “Cornish hug,” “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “hollow mockery,” and “painted sepulcher”? Oh, the places you could go with those phrases!