Why I read 'Robinson Crusoe' every summer

The same way that some families go to the same mountain cabin, beach house or place by the lake each vacation season, every summer I find myself circling back to 'Robinson Crusoe.'

'Robinson Crusoe,' which first appeared in 1719, is one of the most widely published books in history.

I’ve had 52 summers in my life, and in most of them, I’ve spent some time reading “Robinson Crusoe.”

This isn’t, I know, how summer reading is supposed to be. Summer liberates us to be promiscuous readers, hopping from one paperback to the other, looking for the Next Big Thing. I do some of that each summer, too – packing a half-dozen bestsellers in a canvas sack, ready for the odd hour when a hammock or patio chair will invite me to stay awhile, lost within the pages of pop culture’s story du jour.

But in the same way that some families go to the same mountain cabin, beach house or place by the lake each vacation season, I find myself circling back to “Robinson Crusoe,”  the fictional account of the world’s most famous castaway. I suppose I reread it for the same reason anyone rereads a book – because in parting the familiar curtain of its story, I always manage to find something new.

I first read “Robinson Crusoe” in a long-ago summer of grade school, the book cradled with me in a hammock strung across the rafters of a second-story loft in our garage. It was a rare place of solitude in a household that included five siblings, two parents, and two grandparents. Back then, I liked the delicious isolation of “Crusoe” best of all. The thought of being alone on a desert isle seemed like paradise to me.

In adolescence, “Crusoe” promised something else: the prospect of a world where you could make your own rules, dressing as you liked, eating what you chose, doing what you liked when you liked to do it. What teenager wouldn’t want to be “Robinson Crusoe”?

As a college student, I read “Crusoe” as an exercise in condescension. I was just starting to think of myself, however audaciously, as a writer, and reconnecting with Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century novel allowed me to focus on how old-fashioned it seemed to my 20-something mind.  I read the book to convince myself that I was over it.

Later – graduated, single, and on my own – I read Defoe’s chronicle of aloneness and self-sufficiency with a deeper emotional gravity. I was beginning to understand how scary a household of one could sometimes be.

As a young husband and father, I finally began to grasp the deep pain at the center of “Crusoe.” Building my own family sharpened my sense of what it might be like to lose it all – to be banished from a circle of social connections, intimacy, the sound of another human voice. It was like reading “Robinson Crusoe” for the first time.

Now, in my middle years, I see yet another dimension to “Crusoe.” It’s the story of a man who thinks his life is going one way, then discovers it’s going another, forcing him to rethink comfortable assumptions. That’s a common feeling for anyone who occasionally wonders, at the midpoint between youth and old age, how much of what is lost might be reclaimed, and how much has been washed away for good. Any reader past 50 can feel a little shipwrecked every now and then. “Crusoe” clarifies that feeling, puts a name on it, and makes it, on some level, easier to deal with.

So I’ve welcomed another summer by fetching “Crusoe” from the shelf once again – the same Illustrated Junior Library edition, boxed in a black slipcover, that’s followed me from June to June. I’m looking for what the book’s always delivered – the chance to be surprised.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author  of “A Summer of Birds; John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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