In my school, the sight of a child reading a book in solitude, outside the presence of a hectoring teacher, is so unusual as to seem suspicious. I wonder: What’s she up to? When possible, I identify the title and try to assess the kid’s pleasure quotient. On Monday, I noticed a Russian-born girl with a long, braided ponytail seated in the office with a fat volume open on her lap. She was bent over the book in a manner suggesting a tall wading bird waiting for a fish, and she appeared to be in an open-eyed trance, unmoving but for her eyes. I asked what she was reading and she was startled but held up the book: the same edition of Robinson Crusoe with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth that I read as a kid.
I was excited but didn’t wish to sound patronizing. The enduring appeal of Defoe’s masterpiece, first published in 1719, is rooted in a common fantasy: If I were marooned on a desert island, how would I survive and what sort of world would I create? The girl, like Crusoe, said she had just met Friday. In Crusoe’s homely words, as recounted by Elizabeth Bishop, “Friday was nice.” As vivid for me as Defoe’s clean, matter-of-fact prose are Wyeth’s illustrations from 1920. Go here to see them.
Even in an inexpensive reprint, the book is a pleasure to hold and gaze at, half a century after my first encounter. Wyeth’s illustrations, like John Tenniel’s and Arthur Rackham’s, have melded with their books, merging in this reader’s memory – how rare an accomplishment in publishing, another art almost extinct. Here, from Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay (John Daniel & Company, 1992), is a tribute to another writer’s collaborator in the art of making a book, “Of Harry Duncan, Bookmaker”:
“He crafts a print and page that gird
The poem’s grace and make it manned.
He creates matter for the word,
The thisness of the book in hand,
A poem’s flesh, its life conferred.”