Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
I have dozens of books sitting in my to-be-read pile, and they’re all there to make me a bit more well-read, some more than others, of course. A lot of them, like Robinson Crusoe, have been sitting in the pile for a long time because one of the reasons I want to be more well-read is so that I will be able to enjoy a wider variety of books – classics included.
Maybe I’m finally reaching a point of well-readedness (maybe not) where I can enjoy classics, because I don’t know why I put off this book for so long when it’s so enjoyable. It’s adventurous, perceptive, and has a wickedly black sense of humour.
Robinson Crusoe is the firsthand account of the sole survivor of a shipwreck who is stranded on a desert island for almost thirty years. The simple and compelling adventure narrative is full of all the cool survival tricks you can learn to do on your own when you’ve got thirty years time on your hands. Beyond the adventure narrative, and the weird capitalizing of every Noun, there is also a consistently piercing self-analysis by Crusoe, as he examines the choices that brought him to be shipwrecked and spends thirty years making himself into a better man.
For me to think of such a Voyage was the most preposterous thing that ever Man in such Circumstances could be guilty of. But I, that was born to be my own Destroyer, could no more resist the Offer than I could restrain my first rambling Designs, when my Father’s good Counsel was lost upon me. [And so] I went on board in an evil Hour, the first of September, 1659, being the same Day eight Years [ago] that I went from my Father and Mother’s, in order to act the Rebel to their Authority, and the Fool to my own Interest.
Robinson Crusoe has a wickedly black sense of humour, too, and a self-awareness that might be the very thing that makes this book literature. Crusoe is painfully self-aware of himself and every single choice he made in life that led him to be shipwrecked – he has thirty years to spend learning about himself, judging himself, pondering the world, and getting his story down on paper. That Daniel Defoe could create a character that is so vivid and aware that people thought this was a true story, and that he did this in 1719 while inventing the novel, blows my mind. What have we been doing for the last 300 years?
When I read old books like this, and the authors and the characters are so eloquently speaking 300 years ago about ideas that I’d be impressed if people had them today, I wonder what is happening to humanity. I wonder, and I am thankful there is art and literature that can store our past genius, and inspire us to move farther today – or depress the hell out of me.
Of course, even in the most enduring and classic literature, there are bound to be parts that don’t age well, such as Robinson Crusoe’s initial thought upon seeing other people for the first time in 24 years:
I observ’d, that the two who swam [in pursuit], were yet more than twice as long swimming over the Creek, as the [Savage] was that fled from them: It came now very warmly upon my Thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was my Time to get me a Servant, or Assistant; and that I was call’d plainly by Providence to save this poor Creature’s Life.
The sole survivor of a shipwreck, Robinson Crusoe is stranded on an uninhabited island far from any shipping routes. At first he is in despair, but slowly, with patience and ingenuity, he transforms his dismal island into a tropical paradise. But for twenty-four years he has no human company – until one Friday, he rescues a prisoner from a boatload of cannibals.