The Secret Lives of Used Books (Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe)
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.