As we age, we see things differently. Living adds nuance and texture to our perception and our understanding. When we were younger, we appreciated subtlety less and the obvious more. We did not have enough life experience, insight or maturity to appreciate what was happening beneath the surface. As a result, some things we encountered in our youth now seem much changed. But the truth is they have stayed the same; it is we who have changed.
This truth applies to books we read in our youth. Have you ever reread a book, especially a book that you liked a lot or made a great impact on you when you were in school? Rereading is an enlightening experience. Most likely your reaction the second time around is different. But what has changed? The book hasn’t; it has the same characters and plot. But we, our older selves, are different. Changed by life and time, we react differently.
I recently reread the classic, “Robinson Crusoe,” originally published in 1719 and considered one of the first novels written in English. We all know Daniel Defoe’s great story of shipwreck, adventure, and survival. When I read it as a youngster I admired Robinson’s account of his dogged efforts to go on living and was impressed at his ingenuity, industry and pluck in sustaining himself by improvising from nature, and what was left of the ship and its cargo.
I thrilled to his success in beating off an attack by cannibals. And of course, marveled at his growing friendship with Friday. In the end I felt happy when he was, after 28 years, rescued.
But that was then. Now, more than half a century later, “Robinson Crusoe” speaks differently to this grown-up, white-haired lawyer version of the same reader. The book today tells me a different story. It no longer strikes me as an adventure story for young readers. Now it now contains previously unnoticed matters that catch my lawyer’s eye.
One point of legal interest practically jumps off the first page where I discover something I missed before. I learn that Robinson’s “very ancient” father, “a wise and grave man,” gave 18-year-old Robinson “serious and excellent counsel” about his career. What was that sage career advice? “My father,” writes Robinson, “design’d me for the law.”
What? Robinson Crusoe a budding lawyer? Who knew? Or, more accurately, who noticed? Robinson’s father clearly wanted his son, who was “not bred to any trade,” to be a lawyer. By then, Robinson had a “competent share of learning.” Both father and mother thought the time had come for Robinson to “clerk to an attorney.” His parents felt so strongly that their “entreaties” hardened into “commands.”
By learning law, Robinson was told he would have “a prospect of raising my fortunes by application and industry, with a life of ease and pleasure.” (I get the part about “application” and “industry,” but, at 67, I’m still waiting for the “life of ease and pleasure.”)
The elder Crusoe goes on to explain more of the benefits of becoming a lawyer. A lawyer would occupy the “middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life.” This “middle station of life” was, according to Robinson’s father, “the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labor and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition and envy of the upper part of mankind.” The middle class, with “neither poverty nor riches,” had “all kind of enjoyments” but the “fewest disasters,” and was “the state of life all other people envied.”
Alas, stiff-necked young Robinson was unimpressed. He had other ideas. He was neither persuaded nor seduced by the glowing parental portrait of the lawyer’s life. Praise of a middle-class attorney’s existence left Robinson flat.
In a tear-filled confrontation, he rebelled against his parents’ advice and refused to study law. At 18, he wanted something more exciting. Disobeying his parents, he would instead be “satisfied with nothing but going to sea.” Thus, Robinson’s failure to follow his parents’ wishes about a career in law is the springboard for his future misfortunes and the rest of the book.
The father’s advice about studying law soon receives more emphasis. After Robinson’s first voyage sails into heavy weather, the ship’s master asks him why he went to sea, and Robinson “told him my story.” The master replied, “with a strange kind of passion,” by telling him to go back to his father. “If you do not go back, where ever you go, you will meet with nothing but disaster and disappointments, till your father’s words are fulfilled upon you.” But Robinson admits he was “deaf to all good advice.”
What do these opening scenes mean? In literary terms, they obviously set the stage for Robinson’s later ill-starred sea voyage. If he had studied law, he would never have run off to sea, never been shipwrecked, and never written his gripping, deathless journal.
But lawyers might see something else in the opening scenes. We could see it as embedded with a moral: Don’t disobey your parents when they tell you to study law. We might view the basic plot as an allegorical statement that bad things happen when you don’t go to law school.
Of course, this legal link never occurred to me when I first read Robinson Crusoe, several years before I ever thought of going to law school.
But there is more in this famous book for an American lawyer to chew on. When shipwrecked, Robinson was sailing “with all my heart” on a slave ship. He was on his way from Brazil, where he had built a plantation, to Africa to get slaves to bring back to sell. Surely the gravest legal (and moral) issue ever to plague America was slavery.
Looking back, might we not interpret what happened to Robinson Crusoe as an eerie, prescient preview of what would happen to our national ship of state when it was almost wrecked by slavery? Maybe it is too much to say Defoe saw into the future. After all, America was only a loose collection of young British colonies, and the slave trade not yet fully developed, when the book was published. But the imagery is stunning. John Quincy Adams, who argued the anti-slavery Amistad case (made more famous by Steven Spielberg’s popular film), feared, rightly, that slavery would be “the rock against which the ship of state would be split apart.” The symbolism may be unintended (indeed I may be inventing it considering when the book was written), but it is still potent, even obvious, though not necessarily to a young person reading “Robinson Crusoe” for the first time.
“Robinson Crusoe” is itself, in a sense, about taking a second look at past experiences. Our hero writes from the perspective of late middle age. He looks back on his life and sees himself as a headstrong younger person, now wiser and more mature. With time, he interprets his earlier experiences differently from when he actually lived them. In this sense, we are all Robinson Crusoes.
Such rediscovery and reinterpretation are good and enriching, but can have consequences. If re-reading later in life reveals connections and insights previously hidden, does that mean we have to re-read all the books we read before the age of 20? If love is lovelier the second time around, are books also better the second time around?