Saturday, December 03, 2005

Reading Classics

I recently read an excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe, which describes the marooned sailor’s chance discovery of a mysterious human footprint on his island after many years of solitude. Although this excerpt did not mention where it had been taken from, anyone who has read the book before would identify it without too much trouble. But as I read through the piece I became increasingly confused. This was not what I had read as a kid; firstly this was in first person with Robinson describing his feelings of terror upon seeing the solitary footprint in the sand, secondly the language and thoughts expressed were dark and described the sailor’s dread of finding the footprint rather than the sense of adventure and discovery that I had experienced while reading it as a kid. Only when I dug up my old copy of the book did I realize that it was actually a book adapted for young readers, an abridged version that I had read and believed to be a classic! I had received that book and many other such “classics” from my aunt on my 11th birthday. I then remembered the circumstances under which I first read the book; it was actually in a train back from Dharwad to Bangalore. I had just received the bunch of books, and was very eager to read them and unable to wait till I got back home in Bangalore, climbed up on the top berth of the train compartment and started reading the book.

The book at that time gave me a lot of glee and was the first book which I read and re-read about ten times. Although I had been told the story before, I found reading this book extremely invigorating. Only now when I read the book, mused about the illustrations which it had in each page and read an excerpt from the original, did I realize what further depth of thought this classic contained. Dafoe’s Robinson is utterly terrified upon seeing the footprint in the sand. He struggles to understand this unexpected phenomenon amidst the fears of being haunted by the devil and in spite of the solitude reasons out why it cannot be a supernatural occurrence but an evil much more terrifying. When he later finds that his fears of savage cannibals is actually true, Robinson again struggles for confidence in his religious beliefs, questioning whether the miracle which had saved him until then was actually a gift from God. The author’s life paralleled his hero’s in many ways; Dafoe was initially ordained to be a religious minister. But not finding this to his liking decided to become a merchant. He was successful in his initial years but in 1692 his business failed and he had to undergo a lot of hardship. He decided to pursue a career writing political articles but ended up antagonizing the royalty and again was in debt. Finally when he decided to turn towards writing fiction, he was almost sixty and had not succeeded very well in supporting his wife and family of six children. Robinson also endures varying degrees of success. Like Dafoe, he also decides not to pursue his family occupation of Law and decides to be a merchant sailor. The incident between Robinson and his father who is against his son becoming a sailor could well have been inspired by Dafoe’s experience with his parents during his early days. Dafoe found large success with his first novel Robinson Crusoe, and went on to write other noted books like Moll Flanders & Colonel Jack. But unlike his hero Robinson, Dafoe did not have a comfortable old age. He died a broken man largely in debt, alone and frightened.

Reading this excerpt has made me realize that all these years I had been under a wrongful impression of having read this and other classics. Reading the abridged versions introduced me to these books when I was a kid but now I have to read the originals to actually understand the greatness of these books. Books like The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, are all great classics, which I have only read adapted abridged versions. Reading authors from today like those of Sheldon, Archer, Forsyth and the likes is very interesting indeed but for me classics have always held a strange charm. The sense of grandiose adventure and subtle humor in the classics are unparalleled. Emily Bronte’s cult classic The Wuthering Heights is a fascinating example of depth of thought expressed in any kind of prose. The humor of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and that of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat is original and rib tickling. Descriptive and factual classics like Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail & and Edward Ellis’ The Chieftain’s Daughter, which are stories of early explorations and settlements of the American continent, are superior pieces of literature.

For anybody interested in reading such classics which are not all easily available in the market I suggest the internet archive called Project Gutenberg. [ www.gutenberg.org ] They have a large collection of e-books which are freely available for interested readers. I have been reading Bernard Shaw’s classics like Pygmalion, Man and Superman, Caesar and Cleopatra, How He Lied To Her Husband and other such superb plays through these e-books. Project Gutenberg is heaven sent or people like me and with the recent discovery of my poor history of having read these original classics I am sure to find a lot of need for it.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Yep! I remember those old abridged "Moby" Classics with illustrations on one side of the page.. WAR OF THE WORLDS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, TIME MACHINE, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, OLIVER TWIST, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, MOBY DICK (and Captain Ahab!).. .. brings back all those summers during childhood spent reading 'em over and over again.. I always liked Jules Verne more than H G Wells.. But looking back, my all time favourite classic is Dicken's Great Expectations... You know, those books which depict a boy's transition into adulthood through education, love (heartburn!), adventure.. fame are called "BILDUNGSROMAN"... OF HUMAN BONDAGE is my other fave bildungsroman.. One could never forget Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Count of Monte Cristo, Little Women.. and a whole lot of others.. Check out this link for a list of such Bildungsromans - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildungsroman

P.S. thanks for the link to project gutenberg.

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