Reading this wonderful Garry Wills essay today, delighting in its discussion of a favorite passage of mine from the Odyssey, it occurred to me that, in selecting one's "desert island" books, one would be best served by selecting books like the Odyssey—huge books that strive to contain all of life within them. A few others occurred to me: Middlemarch, the complete works of Shakespeare (if that's not cheating), Moby-Dick (despite that book's seemingly circumscribed milieu, in its psychological and philosophical range it seems to fit on the list), and War and Peace, which I'm currently making my way through, and in which I just read this great passage:
Sometimes Pierre remembered stories he had heard about how soldiers at war, taking cover under enemy fire, when there is nothing to do, try to find some occupation for themselves so as to endure the danger more easily. And to Pierre all people seemed to be such soldiers, saving themselves from life: some with ambition, some with cards, some with drafting laws, some with women, some with playthings, some with horses, some with politics, some with hunting, some with wine, some with affairs of state. "Nothing is either trivial or important, it's all the same; only save yourself from it as best you can!" thought Pierre. "Only not to see it, that dreadful it!"
I guess the whole idea of "desert island" books itself is an example of what Pierre is talking about: the occupation you'd need to ward off insanity or suicide if you were stranded alone on a desert island.