Saturday, May 25, 2013

Project R.L.S. #2 ~ Discovering Stevenson

Whenever I explore Robert Louis Stevenson's work more deeply, I always feel a sense of gratitude. He is a constant joy to me and I can hardly imagine what my experience of literature would be like without him. Now that he's made such a big impact on me, I find it interesting to look back and trace how it all began.

My first exposure to Stevenson was, naturally enough, his Child's Garden of Verses. When we were little my dad would have me and my siblings memorize poetry, including several of the more famous selections from Child's Garden. I did not know anything about Stevenson at the time, of course, but already I began to associate his name with adventure, imagination, and wonder. One poem I remember in particular was "Pirate Story", in which three children roam the high seas of their backyard field. There was a certain line of description which left a permanent impression on me:

And waves are on the meadow like the waves there are at sea.
The image had never occurred to me before, but every time afterwards that I saw long grass rippling in the wind, I thought of that poem, and of the sea.

The only other experience of Stevenson that I had at the time I enjoy looking back and laughing at. We used to have an abridged illustrated edition of Treasure Island, one of those with pictures on every other page. I used to take out the book and look at all the pictures but not read a single word of the story. Later we acquired a real edition of Treasure Island, which I tried to read a few times, but somehow never got past the first couple chapters--complaining that I couldn't understand it. (I'm still not sure how I managed that, but the truth remains: I didn't read Treasure Island straight through until last summer!)

As the years went on I became vaguely aware that Stevenson had written two other books called Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde, but I had no interest in either of them, especially since I had barely any idea of what they were about. I was also probably too busy reading Brian Jacques' Redwall series. But our parents insisted that we read classics occasionally, so I remember one day finding Kidnapped on my brother's bed where my mom had left it. I skimmed the summary on the back cover, and under the strange impression that the story took place in the Americas, I idly flipped it open and read part of a chapter. It didn't excite me. I was also still under the strange impression that classics were boring.

So I'm not exactly sure what happened between then and a certain fateful day in February 2011. It was a chilly Sunday morning and I was looking for something to do before we went to Liturgy. In my brother's room I spotted a large book on his dresser--a collection of famous Stevenson novels. I have no memory of what prompted me to do it, but I decided to read Kidnapped.

I could say that I devoured Kidnapped, but it would be more accurate to say that it devoured me. I finished the book before evening, dizzy with adventure. I had never read anything quite like it before, certainly not in a single day. And maybe it was because of of this--that I was totally wiped out--that I completely forgot about Stevenson for another year.

That year, spring of 2012, a friend in our parish choir gave us a couple large boxes of books. Among them was a worn but still beautiful old edition of--that's right--Kidnapped. (Are you beginning to see why this is my favorite book?) I remembered how much I'd enjoyed it, read it again, and loved it even more. I loved it so much, in fact, that I went crazy over Scotland. I ransacked the library for Scottish history, read Walter Scott and Robert Burns, learned Scottish songs, and even made a brief but enthusiastic study of the Scots dialect. That summer, last summer, I did also read Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, and Catriona, the little-known sequel to Kidnapped. Stevenson was now on my list of favorite writers-of-adventure-novels--it didn't occur to me yet that he might be something more.

That didn't happen until only this January. Then, in an old dusty tome of English literature, I stumbled upon Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "A Gossip on Romance".

It was my first direct glimpse of Stevenson as a person, and what a glorious glimpse it was. At every turn I found that we had a love in common--love of adventure, and great books, and beauty. I had found a companion whom I could understand thoroughly, and, it seemed, who completely understood me! The rest of that day I was virtually floating around the house in ecstasy.

From then on my love for Stevenson was sealed. I read more essays, explored his short stories. I also finally got around to reading Jekyll and Hyde, which I enjoyed very much (although I strongly recommend NOT reading it on a stormy night when you have a bad cold, unless you like being kept awake all night...I am speaking from experience...). I've started reading his other poetry besides Child's Garden. And I plan to read his travel memoirs, his letters, and his lesser-known novels.

As you can see from this giant post, discovering Stevenson has been quite an adventure for me--and it's really only just begun! If you love adventure, or poetry, or even just beautiful writing, and you have not picked up Stevenson, you do not know what you are missing. R.L.S. himself once said of a favorite essay by William Hazlitt, "[it] is so good that there should be a tax levied on all who have not read it." That pretty well sums up the way I feel about Robert Louis Stevenson.