In a Word

I thought maybe I’d take a break from mediocre Space Opera and find something more fulfilling to read. One good thing about the modern age is that with a suitable device one has access to countless classics of literature. I’ve read more than one of those.

Robinson Crusoe recently caught my eye. I have vague recollections of a least one movie based on the story, those memories smelling slightly of Disney. Guy gets shipwrecked, has adventures, gets rescued. I think there was a dog, and natives. I have no doubt that the original will be substantially different.

If I can manage to read it. Here’s a sentence from near the beginning:

β€œIn a word, as the sea was returned to its smoothness of surface and settled calmness by the abatement of that storm, so the hurry of my thoughts being over, my fears and apprehensions of being swallowed up by the sea being forgotten, and the current of my former desires returned, I entirely forgot the vows and promises that I made in my distress.”

My eyes were getting blurry by the end of my count, but I came up with a total of sixty-one words to finish a thought that started with “In a word…” But I am in no position to criticize someone for rambling.

There has already been one Interesting Idea (that the happiest people are in the economic center of the spectrum, and that adventuring is not for people who have a chance to be actually happy), but Daniel Defoe spends so much time talking about the people trying to convince Robinson to stay home that he kind of neglects the far more interesting expression of what that desire to roam feels like. There’s nothing visceral in his descriptions; I don’t feel the pull of the sea. Maybe I’m viewing this through a modern lens, but I want to understand his irrational decision from an emotional level, rather than just be presented with it. Other than the weeping of his father (factually presented), there’s not much emotion to be found.

And to be fair, Crusoe is telling this story from the point of view of regret. All those people telling him to stay home were right.

The first storm has come and gone and Crusoe has managed to convey his fear well enough even without any visceral imagery – but it felt flat to me. One sentence stood out, however (yours truly stops to copy sentence, realizes the sentence is easily more than 100 words long and the good part was just a piece of it):

β€œI expected every wave would have swallowed us up, and that every time the ship fell down, as I thought it did, in the trough or hollow of the sea, we should never rise more; in this agony of mind, I made many vows and resolutions…”

Were I in a writing workshop with Mr. Defoe, I would have advised him to go back and add the groaning of the timbers of his fragile ship, the cursing of the crew, the water washing over the deck, and the feeling in his gut when his little boat slides off the crest of a wave and into the waiting trough, and the juddering in his legs as the boat smashes her bow into the wall of water rising above her, to repeat the cycle.

Although this was a pretty minor storm; maybe Defoe is saving up his descriptive prose for the real thing. That might be an excuse, but you never forget your first storm at sea, I bet. The next day Crusoe’s pal says “that was nothin’!” But wouldn’t Crusoe’s terror be all the more meaningful when reviewed in that context?

I’m pretty sure I could have helped a lot of authors of classics really get over the top with their “great works”. Story idea: I and Michael Bay go back in time to fix a bunch of boring old “literature”.

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