The year was 1957, and Mary Montgomery’s father gave her an edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, beautifully illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. (“From Daddy” — sweet.) Sixty-some years later I gave the very same copy to my son, after discovering it in a library book sale near Monterey.
He read the book in fifth grade, and — as students do these days — he promptly took an AR (“accelerated reader”) test on it. He did reasonably well on the test, even though we discovered that the three-hundred-year-old novel, arguably the first in the English language, is at a collegiate Lexile level.
For example, in the vocabulary portion of the test, he was stumped by ague. He later asked me what it meant, and I leaned back comfortably in my chair and prepared to dispense some wisdom. I took a slow breath, gazed off into the middle distance, and realized I was stalling, because I couldn’t think of what it meant. Something like anhedonia? Ennui? Anomie? Wrong on all counts.
I’ve never read a complete work of Defoe’s. I was supposed to read Moll Flanders in college, but I objected just a little too much to the fact that the book contained no chapter breaks, as if the work were therefore unnavigable. I fell back on CliffsNotes instead and barely got through freshman English.
That I went on to enjoy some success as an editor and a writer proves only how ridiculous life can be.