“Reading Robinson Crusoe is like reading a grocery list scribbled in the margins of a postcard from Fiji”
“The reason I did not enjoy Robinson Crusoe is that nothing in this novel made me care for or invest in any element of it. The main character is psychologically flat and completely lacking in complexity, seeming to suffer absolutely no ill effects from being completely alone for 25 years or so. The drama is contrived and not suspenseful. As I don’t really care for the main character, I don’t really care if he were to be eaten by pagan cannibals.”*
“I’ve read some awful books this year (and wonderful as well!), and this is definitely on the shortlist of Worst Books Ever Read.”
“If I could have given this book a zero I would have. It was truly boring, and not really worth anyone’s time to read. I stopped reading it when it became apparent that the air in front of my face was more interesting. The entire novel reads like someone’s grocery list.”
“This is the tale of an English sociopath who travels the world blaming everyone else for all his misfortunes, and generally making peoples lives worse.”
“I wrote Robinson a hate letter (in the inside of my book’s cover). I did.”
[*I felt somewhat differently; I did care – I was most of the time rooting for the cannibals…]
The quotes above are from various reviews on goodreads. I read most of the book on Monday and finished it yesterday. I don’t think I would have finished the book if not for the fact that I was keeping score of the number of books I’d read during the year and yesterday was the last day of 2013 – I gave the book one star on goodreads, and it’s one of very few books (actually I’m not completely sure if there are any others) which I’ve actually finished which got that score. I have been thinking about whether to blog it at all or not, in part because when you don’t have a lot of nice things to say it’s best not to say anything – but I decided to have a go at it anyway because I feel entitled to criticize this book to hell and beyond given that I’ve actually finished it.
The short version is this:
The book is a shitty book. It’s boring, silly and foolish. Some of the parts which are not so boring as to make you want to beat up the author even though he’s been dead for centuries are so wildly implausible that they reach the point of ‘you gotta be kidding me’-ridiculousness. The protagonist is a religious nutbag, a slaver, a murderer, and an asshole.
Part of my dislike is of course just values dissonance taking its toll, but that’s far from the only problem here. The author does not seem overly familiar with periods, and some sentences in this book make Proust look like he’d been in a hurry to complete his sentences while he was writing Swann’s Way… One should always include examples, so here’s one:
“A little after noon I found the sea very calm, and the tyde ebb’d so far out, that I could come within a quarter of a mile of the ship; and here I found a fresh renewing of my grief, for I saw evidently, that if we had kept on board, we had been all safe, that is to say, we had all got safe on shore, and I had not been so miserable as to be left entirely destitute of all comfort and company, as I now was; this forced tears from my eyes again, but as there was little relief in that, I resolv’d, if possible, to get to the ship, so I pull’d off my clothes, for the weather was hot to extremity, and took the water, but when I came to the ship, my difficulty was still greater to know how to get on board, for as she lay a ground, and high out of the water, there was nothing within my reach to lay hold of, I swam round her twice, and the second time I spy’d a small piece of a rope, which I wonder’d I did not see at first, hang down by the fore-chains so low, as that with great difficulty I got hold of it, and by the help of that rope, got up into the fore-castle of the ship, here I found that the ship was bulg’d, and had a great deal of water in her hold, but that she lay so on the side of a bank of hard sand, or rather earth, that her stern lay lifted up upon the bank, and her head low almost to the water; by this means all her quarter was free, and all that was in that part was dry; for you may be sure my first work was to search and to see what was spoil’d and what was free; and first I found that all the ship’s provisions were dry and untouch’d by the water, and being very well dispos’d to eat, I went to the bread-room and fill’d my pockets with bisket, and eat it as I went about other things, for I had no time to lose; I also found some rum in the great cabin, of which I took a large dram, and which I had indeed need enough of to spirit me for what was before me: Now I wanted nothing but a boat to furnish my self with many things which I foresaw would be very necessary to me.”
That one is far from one of a kind – as a matter of fact there’s an approximately equally long passage on the very next page of the book.
As pointed out in the introduction of the version I was reading, “Psychologically and ideologically, Crusoe necessarily belongs to his time and place rather than ours, and not everyone will find Crusoe’s struggles with his faith in God’s Providence compelling or even convincing.” And that is indeed one way to put it. I increased my reading speed significantly when I came across the words ‘Providence’ or ‘God’, because those words usually indicated that the author was about to waste yet another half page (like above, without periods) on crap I did not want to read. As for the ridiculous elements, here’s an example from the last part of the book (I don’t worry about spoilers because I couldn’t possibly spoil this book, as it’s already so horrible as to be almost unreadable): Let’s start out with the story about 300 wolves (“I verily believe there were three hundred of them”) attacking one small group of people (including Crusoe) travelling through Southern France, pretty much all at the same time (they attack in multiple waves, but the relevant timeframe is minutes or hours). The group that got attacked killed 60 wolves during the attack (“We had, first and last, kill’d about three score of them”). That’s not even the fun part – no, here’s the really neat quote:
“when we told our story at Tholouse, they told us it was nothing but what was ordinary in the great forest at the foot of the mountains, especially when the snow lay on the ground”.
This guy is so full of shit it’s not even funny… (here’s a relevant link.)
There are a few quote-worthy passages in the book and I’ve included a few below, but I really can’t emphasize enough that this book is not worth your time. The simple truth of the matter is that that whole novel-writing thing has come a long way in the last 300 years. Maybe the quotes below will make you start thinking it’s worth reading in order to gain a better appreciation of how unreasonable people think and how they come to think that their unreasonable ideas are reasonable, but trust me – you can do much better than this if you look elsewhere. Note that many of these quotes are cut off to some extent, because if I had to quote whole ‘sentences’ these quotes would be almost as long as the awful passage I quoted in full above.
“who wou’d ha’ suppos’d we were sail’d on to the southward to the truly barbarian coast, where whole nations of Negroes were sure to surround us with their canoes, and destroy us; where we could ne’er once go on shore but we should be devour’d by savage beasts, or more merciless savages of human kind. […] to have fallen into the hands of any of the savages, had been as bad as to have fallen into the hands of lyons and tygers; at least we were equally apprehensive of the danger of it.”
“he offer’d me also 60 Pieces of Eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loath to take, not that I was not willing to let the Captain have him, but I was very loath to sell the poor boy’s liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own. However when I let him know my reason, he own’d it to be just, and offer’d me this medium, that he would give the boy an obligation to set him free in ten years, if he turn’d Christian; upon this, and Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the Captain have him. [Long before his trip to the desert island, Crusoe was enslaved by pirates. The boy Xury had helped him escape from the pirates. How did he repay the boy? He sold him into slavery as soon as he met a Westerner from the ‘civilized lands’. When they started out their escape, incidentally, Crusoe promised the poor boy that, “if you’ll be faithful to me I’ll make you a great man” (this is 8 pages before he sells him into slavery). As to the boy’s consent, consider what you would have done if you were a young slave on the run from your former Master in unknown lands on the Barbary Coast roughly 300 years ago..]
“I had more than four times the value of my first cargo, and was now infinitely beyond my poor neighbour, I mean in the advancement of my plantation; for the first thing I did, I bought me a Negro slave, and an European servant also; I mean, besides that which the Captain brought me from Lisbon.”
“after enjoining my secrecy, they told me, they had a mind to fit out a ship to go to Guinea, that they all had plantations as well as I, and were straiten’d for nothing so much as servants; that as it was a trade that could not be carried on, because they could not publickly sell the Negroes when they came home, so they desired to make but one voyage, to bring the Negroes on shore privately, and divide them among their own plantations; and in a word, the question was, whether I would go their super-cargo in the ship to manage the trading part upon the coast of Guinea? And they offer’d me that I should have my equal share of the Negroes without providing any part of the stock.
This was a fair proposal it must be confess’d […] I told them I would go with all my heart, if they would undertake to look after my plantation in my absence” [this was the trip that lead to him being shipwrecked]
“I consider’d, that if this land was the Spanish coast, I should certainly, one time or other, see some vessel pass or re-pass one way or other; but if not, then it was the savage coast between the Spanish country and Brasils, which are indeed the worst of savages; for they are cannibals, or men-eaters, and fail not to murther and devour all the human bodies that fall into their hands.”
“I daily read the word of God […] I began to conclude in my mind, that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken solitary condition, than it was probable that I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place. […] I work’d my mind up, not only to resignation to the will of God in the present disposition of my circumstances; but even to a sincere thankfulness for my condition, and that I who was yet a living man, ought not to complain, seeing I had not the due punishment of my sins”
“he kneel’d down again, kiss’d the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever […] At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he has done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how, he would serve me as long as he liv’d; I understood him in many things, and let him know, I was very well pleas’d with him […] I made him know his name should be Friday […] I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know that was to be my name […] never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me”
“I began to instruct him in the knowledge of the true God […] When he came again to me, I entred into a long discourse with him upon the subject of the redemption of man by the Saviour of the world, and of the doctrine of the Gospel preach’d from Heaven, viz. of repentance towards God, and faith in our blessed lord Jesus. […] The savage was now a good Christian […] After Friday and I became more intimately acquainted, and that he could understand almost all I said to him, and speak fluently, tho’ in broken English to me; I acquainted him with my own story, or at least so much of it as related to my coming into the place, how I had liv’d there, and how long.” [Yep, Crusoe went for the religious indoctrination long before he figured it was necessary to tell the other guy how he’d happened to end up on that desert island on which they happened to be the only two inhabitants. He’d not spoken to another human being for more than 25 years, but it was still more important to Crusoe to teach the savage about Jesus than it was to tell him his own life story.. Makes sense..]
“there were one and twenty savages, three prisoners, and three canoes […] their whole business seem’d to be the triumphant banquet upon these three human bodies (a barbarous feast indeed) but nothing more than as I had observ’d was usual with them. […] I came down again to Friday, and told him, I was resolv’d to go down to them, and kill them all”
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