What Planet is This?

26 Jul 2005

Desert Island History

BBC Radio 4 has been running its Desert Island Discs programme since 1942, making it the longest running radio show ever. It's currently presented by Sue Lawley. Each week, they have a guest on who picks the eight records that they'd take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. They also get to take one book, excluding the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which are already taken to be present on the island. The RAF must've done an air-dropping campaign or something back in the early 20th century to make sure that every island has those books.

Programmes like Desert Island Discs and The Archers form the background for the traditional English lifestyle, as much as tea and cricket, so it's not surprising that I should've thought about it when I realised that this piece of writing will contain, somewhere, the 10,000th word that I've written for this periodical. As I was wondering what the best 10,000 words I could've written would be, I wondered also about what 10,000 words to write for somebody that would be stuck on a desert island for years. Or, better yet, what 10,000 words to send off into space in order to contain as much of the rest of history as possible.

Problem is, 10,000 words isn't much room. Books are usually a minimum of about 50,000 words, and even a short story usually gets to a bit more. It's larger than most essays, certainly, and therefore in that grey zone of writings like pamphlets and long poems. So, how do you go about compressing an Encyclopaedia down into 10,000 words?

I was thinking about markov chaining random statements from Wikipedia, though the results would be fun to read rather than useful. Alternatively, there's the idea of piecing together lots of facts at random like in Schott's Miscellany. That'd be better, but you'd miss an overall organisation, and that way you'd miss out a lot of the greatest events of history. But how would you go about, for example, choosing which people to mention? Even if you just recorded the bare names of the thousand most interesting people of history, you'd take up more than a fifth of your total word count.

What I'd do is attempt to combine the approaches. On the one hand I'd start with the overall history of the world, mentioning the great people, inventions, and ideas along the way. On the other, I'd fold in plenty of random miscellany, and bits of ephemera such as nursery rhymes, bus timetables, or whatever really, mixing the high, the low, and everything in between to make sure that as much of the overall picture is preserved as possible. It'd be a pretty big task, though, even with the word limit—or, perhaps, especially with the word limit!

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Desert Island History", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/deserthistory


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Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

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