Lost: The essential reading list
Still trying to puzzle out the meaning of it all? Doc Jensen looks at books, authors, and literary references that found a place in the Lost world.
This 1977 novel by Walker Percy (The Moviegoer) is a bleak psychological investigation of a Southern gentleman gone toxic and emotionally disturbed from his wife's betrayal, his own violence, and various other sad things — including, it seems, America itself. It was one of many books read by good ol' boy Sawyer (Josh Holloway) on the beach during his downtime from A-team missions in the jungle. It was also one of three books (along with Watership Down and A Wrinkle in Time) on Sawyer's dresser in his Sideways world — many Lost fans have inferred their presence in Sawyer's afterlife fantasy to mean that they held more significance to him and to Lost than any other novel seen in his hands. Lancelot speaks to Sawyer's unresolved rage over the death of his parents. (Perhaps coincidentally, the novel was published the same year as their murder/suicide.) But its final pages — in which the demented dark knight threatens to impose his own brand of justice upon the world unless God reveals himself and intervenes — mirror Richard Alpert's (Nestor Carbonell) complaint to Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) that, by remaining silent and separate from his Island people, he allowed the devilish Smokey to manipulate and darken their hearts.
Lord of the Flies
This high school book report staple — about English schoolboys in an apocalyptic situation struggling to survive the elements and each other after getting marooned on a deserted island — was an inevitable name check for Lost. The show invoked William Golding's 1954 novel as shorthand to characterize some meltdown in castaway society or moral behavior. "It's Lord of the Flies time now," Sawyer remarked after the raft got torched in season 1's "...In Translation." Among the similarities between Lost and Flies: a lead character named Jack (though his growing moral corruption is more disturbing than Jack Shephard's [Matthew Fox] internal affairs) and a monstrous entity known as "The Beast," although Golding's island terror turns out to be...well, you did the book report, so you don't need me to tell you.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass
Lewis Carroll's topsy-turvy fantasy world inspired the title of the season 1 episode "White Rabbit," in which Jack encountered the specter of his dead father (rocking his scientific, naturalistic worldview in the same way a neurotic talking rabbit might) and chased after him. (Ghost Christian was revealed in season 6 to be a manifestation of the Monster, a.k.a. the Man in Black.) Lost was fixated on literary Otherworlds — The Wizard of Oz was another frequent reference — but perhaps Alice spoke best for Lost, as the Island was a world that defied conventional understanding and classical logic, thus challenging its characters to reconsider their perspectives on reality, themselves, and each other.
The Third Policeman
An obscure text given new life and profile by the attention Lost brought to it, Flann O'Brien's novel, published in 1967 but written in 1940, is an absurdist, Kafkaesque saga about a nameless narrator's loopy journey to self-awareness — though the revelations are far from comforting or redemptive. Policeman was introduced via Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) in the season 2 episode "Orientation" (Desmond's strange odyssey to reunite with Penny [Sonya Walger] is a "happily ever after" gloss on the harder, headier arc of Policeman's protagonist) and culminates with some twists that are relevant to the big secret of Lost's season 6 Sideways story line and Jack's final moments on the Island.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
In the season 2 episode "The Long Con," John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) searched through the Hatch's bookshelves, hoping to find more insight into the Dharma mystery, and one of the tomes he flipped was Ambrose Bierce's 1886 short story. Set during the Civil War, Bridge concerns a Southern man who miraculously escapes death by hanging. In general, the twisty, twist-ending yarn nods to Lost's love for "long con" storytelling, and its placement in season 2 was meant to foreshadow the episode "Dave," which sought to debunk any "they're all dead" interpretation of the Island drama.
The works of Stephen King
Stephen King was the author who most inspired Lost exec producers J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse in their conception and execution of the series. The Stand had a particular hold on their imaginations. King's sprawling opus concerns a diverse group of plague survivors from various walks and weird corners of life who must labor together to rebuild their lives and their civilization — and who wind up pitted against each other in a supernaturally-charged battle between good and evil. Season 3 included two of Lost's most memorable King references. In "A Tale of Two Cities," Juliet sang the praises of Carrie during her book club meeting with fellow Others. The book's tale of a psychic teen warped and damaged by evil influences stands as a metaphor for the Island itself. And the appearance of a rabbit branded with the number eight in "Every Man for Himself" was a nod to King's On Writing, in which the writer uses a thought experiment involving a rabbit marked with the numeral eight to liken writing to mental telepathy. Again, I say: The damn island was psychic!
The works of C.S. Lewis
The prolific author, essayist, and Christian apologist was most famous for The Chronicles of Narnia and was frequently cited by Cuse and Lindelof as one of their Lost touchstones. Charlotte Staples Lewis (Rebecca Mader) was named after Clive Staples Lewis, and the former Dharma girl's joyous return to the Island in season 4's "Confirmed Dead" evoked Lucy's joyous return to Narnia in Lewis' Prince Caspian. The off-Island Dharma station known as the Lamp Post, hidden under a Los Angeles church, was named after a Narnia landmark. Other books written by Lewis with strong Lost resonance include Miracles, The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim's Regress, and his unfinished last novel, The Dark Tower.
A Wrinkle in Time
The first and most well-known of Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet of fantasy novels, A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962, was introduced into Lost's lexicon via Sawyer in the season 1 episode "Numbers" and contains several points of similarity with the show. There's an odd, supernaturally-gifted child (Charles Wallace = Walt); a dark, evil cloud (The Black Thing = Smokey); a sentient, psychic locale (Camazotz = the Island); plus angelic guardians, references to philosophers, a thematic emphasis on the redemptive, empowering force of community and love, and, obviously, time travel.
"Hell of a book. It's about bunnies," raved Sawyer about Richard Adams' 1972 novel in the season 1 episode "Confidence Man." (I'd like to see that quote blurbed on the jacket!) Though it was Boone (Ian Somerhalder) who brought the book to the Island, Sawyer was seen reading it three times over the years. Adams' allegorical opus — about a community of rabbits heeding a prophetic dream of doom and embarking on a perilous odyssey in search of a new warren to call home — is hopping with Lost overlaps: psychic phenomenon, fertility crises, extermination by gassing, Utopian communities, and, of course, bunnies. (The book is also good for a winky nod to Sawyer's season 6 disastrous submarine escape plan implied submarine puns. "Watership Down." Get it?) (Yes: Groan.) I recommend this piece by writer Emily St. James linking the conclusion of Down to the revelations of Lost's series finale.
Hardcore fans with a serious geek bent have long theorized a connection between Lost's seemingly sentient, psychic Island and a signature work of a celebrated science fiction author. But the book we were anticipating was Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (made twice into a movie, including the George Clooney one in 2002), not Philip K. Dick's 1981 novel Valis, a wild and woolly tangle of philosophy, religion, fringe science, and conspiracy theory. "Valis" stands for "vast active living intelligence system" — not a bad way to think of the Island. The book, which belonged to Ben (Michael Emerson), made its first appearance in the season 4 episode "Eggtown" — Locke gave it to him to read while holding his nemesis captive in Dharmaville. When Ben said he had already read it, Locke replied: "You might catch something you missed the second time around." (We then saw Ben reading Valis anew a couple of episodes later.) Was Lost trying to underscore the significance of the novel to its own story? Debate...after you've read the book.
Often hailed as the greatest novel ever written, James Joyce's thick and difficult modernist masterpiece about a day in the life of two Irish men is an exhilarating and exhausting reading experience that takes Homer's The Odyssey as its narrative model and incorporates philosophical, literary, and pop culture references. In other words, totally like Lost! (Especially the thick, difficult, and exhilarating/exhausting parts.) It says something about Ben's intellectual acumen and concentration that he brought Ulysses to read during his freaky flight back to the Island in the episode "316." Fun fact: Ulysses turns the word/theme of metempsychosis into a recurring theme/pun. "Metempsychosis" is a fancy term for reincarnation, or, "Probably what happened to the dead castaways after they got swallowed up by the light in the final episode."
A Separate Reality
In the same way Ben was served Valis with a meal during his Dharma captivity in season 4, Sayid (Naveen Andrews) was given Carlos Castaneda's 1971 mystical memoir along with a sandwich during his Dharma incarceration in the season 5 outing "He's Our You." His highly literate waiter? Why, Young Ben, of course, who claimed to have read the book twice. Obviously, the title should have be seen as foreshadowing for season 6's Sideways world story line. Major themes in Castaneda's work include personal responsibility, transformed consciousness, and waiting patiently for life's purpose to manifest itself — all central to Jack's season 5 spiritual transformation. Of course, Castaneda also was really big on hallucinogenic drugs, which played a role in Sayid's "He's Our You" story. Some people believe hallucinogenic drugs played a pivotal role in the Lost writers' room, too.
Fear and Trembling
Hurley (Jorge Garcia) literally stumbled upon Soren Kierkegaard's slim philosophical work in the season 6 premiere "LA X" when he nearly tripped on the moldy, Smokey-dismembered corpse of Montand (Marc Menard) in the tunnels underneath the Temple's outer wall. The book uses another Lost reference — "The Binding of Isaac," the Biblical tale of Abraham's test of faith via the blood sacrifice of his son — to explore various interpretations of faithful obedience to God despite lacking understanding of his intentions and even while doubting his goodness or existence. So, yes, being Kierkegaard's "knight of faith" is precisely like being a Lost fan.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
When he was introduced in season 2, Desmond Hume was seen reading The Third Policeman. In his first appearance in Lost's final season, Mr. "See You in Another Life, Brutha" helped to introduce us to the Sideways world in a scene that had him reading Salman Rushdie's 1990 fantasy. A children's book if you believe its bookstore categorization, Haroun is really a story for people of all ages — an allegory about redemption, fathers and sons, and the power and purpose of storytelling itself. For those still debating the merits of Lost's final moments, Haroun's concluding chapter, in which the young hero wrestles with the problem of the seemingly arbitrary deus ex machina happy ending, provides some interesting talking points for the conversation.
Notes from Underground
Echoing the moment in the season 6 premiere when Hurley found Fear and Trembling on the body of dead Montand (Marc Menard), the episode "Everybody Loves Hugo" had Hurley finding another classic of early existentialism among exploded Ilana's (Zuleikha Robinson) personal effects. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 novel presents one bitter, broken man's provocative observations — and outraged, stream-of-consciousness rants — about human nature, socialism and capitalism, and literature, as well as his chronicle of a doomed romance with a sex worker. With its ideas and themes, Underground illuminates Lost in many ways, especially its contention (a staple tenet of Existentialist thought) that people live life moment to moment without a clear understanding of their purpose or true understanding of their activity — it's only upon reflection that meaning is gleaned from the history that people produce. (Shades of Kierkegaard's famous, Lost-relevant line: "Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.") Dostoyevsky demonstrates the dynamic by splitting his book into two parts — the first part devoted to reflecting, the second part devoted to the doing. The final season of Lost is structured the same way: The Island world is a place of confused living, while the Sideways world afterlife is a place of recollection and introspection. See? These literary references really do explain Lost!
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