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Robinson Crusoe (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (B&N Classics) Mass Market Paperback – April 1, 2003
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People who have never actually read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe often think of it as a children's book. It is a tale, so they suppose, that belongs on the shelf upstairs in the playroom alongside Lassie, the Hardy Boys books, and Charlotte's Web. But to discover the fallacy of this notion we need only sit down with a child and start trying to read the book. Reading Robinson Crusoe to a child usually turns out to be a different, somewhat less amiable adventure than telling the child about Robinson Crusoe in our own words. The child can eagerly attend to our retelling of the Crusoe story, relatively inept storytellers though we may be. The experiences of a man shipwrecked alone on a desert island-his initial fears, his efforts to escape, his struggle to secure food and shelter, his discovery of a footprint in the sand-all these things take powerful hold on a child's imagination. But if plunged into Defoe's original narrative of Crusoe's experiences, a child immediately senses that the waters of storytelling have suddenly gotten uncomfortably deep, that the exciting shallows of the story as Mom or Dad would tell it at bedtime have been left behind, that many things going on around the margins of the adventure story in Defoe's book are not attractively adventurous. How can a person possibly wade through this strange book that pretends to be Robinson Crusoe? Some sort of incomprehensible adult trickery must be going on here.
Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is a novel for grown-up minds that has been kidnapped for, though obviously not by, the kids. In this respect it's interestingly akin to another supposed children's book that would be published midway into the next century, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Like Crusoe, Alice presents us with the story of a person transported from our own familiar world into foreign territory that offers opportunity for exciting adventure, obviously, but also for an encounter with some complex intellectual issues. A child, responding eagerly to the adventure but brought up short by the intellectual issues, is likely to sense immediately that neither Crusoe nor Alice is a book for the playroom. Both belong in the library downstairs, where adults retreat to contemplate the shadowy mysteries of their own minds and experience.
Once we adults rescue Robinson Crusoe from the playroom and begin thinking about its significance for ourselves, it is helpful to consider some things we might expect to find in the novel that either do not appear there at all or that appear in unfamiliar forms. Writing Robinson Crusoe in the early years of the eighteenth century, Defoe reveals himself to be in several important respects not quite of our mind. True, he's an intellectual precursor of the modern mind and, as such, some aspects of his basic interests and values are relatively close to our own. Rudiments of the Crusoe story exert considerable contemporary popular appeal, and not just to small children. Many movie adaptations have been made of the story. In the last few years alone, for example, we've had Aidan Quinn play Crusoe in a 1988 film of that name; we've had Pierce Brosnan, of James Bond fame, play Crusoe in the 1996 Robinson Crusoe; we've had Tom Hanks play a rather interesting loose translation of Crusoe as a plane-wrecked Federal Express man in the 2000 film Cast Away. The name "Robinson Crusoe" itself has entered the public domain; like "Gatsby," "Tarzan," "Superman," and "Mickey Mouse," it has become a useful shorthand term in contemporary popular thought, meaningful to people who have never encountered the literary source.
But if we go back to the novel Robinson Crusoe and see what Defoe made of the story in 1719, we run into some intriguing basic differences from common inclinations of thought in more recent centuries. These differences constitute an important part of what makes Robinson Crusoe not simply entertaining-occasionally almost more puzzling, or even more irritating than entertaining-but thereby greatly worth reading for the mind's sake.
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Defoe’s writing style continues very much as it was in the first Crusoe volume. The wording is a little archaic but is basically simple, clear, and full of detail, with a smattering of protestant religious teaching thrown in. (The Kindle version is from a 1919 edition, and I am not entirely sure whether the text is Defoe’s original wording or whether it may have been revised and edited for early 20th century taste.) As he did in the first volume, Defoe tends to write extremely long sentences, using a semi-colon in places where more modern writers would use a period; but the long sentences generally are not convoluted and are relatively easy to read. I have found surprisingly little detailed biographical information about Defoe on the internet (e.g., Wikipedia). What I have found provides no information saying that he was widely traveled and say nothing about his having traveled around the world of his day. But if he had not experienced such travel himself, then he certainly must have been working or communicating closely with a person who had that experience. I think it would be very unlikely for a writer to credibly make up the journey that he describes without some personal experience, either directly or indirectly, of what he is describing. Many of the details ring true; and even if he had access to a large library of travel documents, which I have no reason to believe he did, I cannot believe that he could develop such realistic sounding episodes without a personal experience of them. Keeping in mind that the only modes of travel at that time were by sailing ship and on foot (either the feet of beasts or the feet of men), one is impressed that anyone would travel primarily for the pleasure of the adventure. An expected journey of 5 weeks could develop into 5 months because of various unforeseen delays; and, except for a limited number of areas where letters of credit might be used, one had to transport one’s goods and money along the entire way. This would be a logistical nightmare, if not an impossibility, in today’s world. But Crusoe, through Defoe’s writing, managed to do it in a believable way. Crusoe leaves home a robust man in his early 60s and returns to England 10 years later, still robust but aged and with his thirst for further travel fully satiated. I am very glad I read the book and recommend it highly.
When we first met Robinson Crusoe, he is a thoughtless young man, in love with the idea of adventure and with no idea of the possible consequences or of his responsibilities toward his family. He goes to sea, when he encounters more than one disaster but persists in his search for adventure. Finally, his adventuring spirit will leave him a castaway on a seemingly deserted island, the only survivor of the foundering of a ship.
Luckily, Crusoe is able to salvage food, tools, weapons, and building materials from his old ship. With this starter kit, he improvises a precarious life on his island. But Crusoe is not yet safe from danger. In addition to the hazards of illness, hurricane, earthquake and loneliness, he will discover both cannibals and pirates in his neighborhood. Will Crusoe be equal to the tests of his spirit and his ability to survive? Will he ever have the chance to leave his island, and return to his family?
This Campfire Graphic Novel nicely adapts the original novel. The edited text and artwork capture the essentials of the story, including Crusoe's explicit struggle for redemption after years of wasted living. Highly recommended.
Crusoe was a real "mind trip" for me, enjoyed being marooned on his island for twenty and seven years with him! Long live Friday and Poll!