altA Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (New American Library, New York, 1960)

I first read this as a requirement for school, I believe, though I remember nothing of it, not even the grade I was in.  It has long been my theory that many schoolteachers take good books and make them boring, either by being bored themselves, or by presenting the books to students who don't have enough life experience to appreciate them.  A Journal of the Plague Year is proof that some required books don't need any pedagogical interference to be boring.

The plague in question is the Great Plague of London in 1665.  Defoe had been born about five years earlier, and wrote the Journal in 1722.  It is a work of fiction, but written in such detail and with so much obvious research that it is impossible to tell where history ends and fiction begins.  

It's not the history that makes it boring, but that Defoe writes as if he is being paid by the word.  It's not that long a story, but at least twice as bad as a Presbyterian sermon, in which the same point is merely repeated two more times than necessary.  The story of the plague and the Londoners' responses to it is truly interesting, but my eyes started to glaze over long before the sixth repetition.

In 1721, the plague was again sweeping across Europe and threatening England, which may have been Defoe's inspiration.  He might even have written it by request, as he was at the time working for the government, but in any case he would have been keenly aware of the heightened public interest in such a book.  Accordingly, it reads like part history, part political pamphlet, and part religious tract.  The supposed author—a saddler,* like Defoe's own journal-keeping uncle—praises the governmental officials and high class people a bit overmuch, offers his suggestions for regulations and behavior in case the plague should return, and exhorts his readers in spiritual matters as seriously as any preacher.  It's all quite interesting—the first and even the second time.

That the Journal is undated and not divided into chapters adds to the reading difficulty.  I needed to mark my place carefully to be certain that the repetitive nature of the narrative was real and not an artifact of losing my place.

Is it worth reading?  I'm not sure.  It would be a good supplement to a study of the various outbreaks of the plague in Europe, or of the history of England during those times, or even of the nature of political propaganda.  But I probably wouldn't insist that a reluctant reader finish it in its entirety.

You can read A Journal of the Plague Year online in your choice of versions, including this one at Google Books.


*A maker and repairer of saddles and other equipment for horses.
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Edit
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sounds like a good candidate for an abridged edition... unfortunately it doesn't look like Reader's Digest has done one

Posted by Peter V on Friday, February 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm

I enjoyed my read a few years ago of "Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague" by Geraldine Brooks. In this case, a small village in England is hit by the plague and seals itself off to prevent its spread.

I would not put this book on your list if you are trying to educate yourself on the plague and English history, but might be worth a read if you like the historical fiction genre.

Per usual I don't remember the details, so can't remember if there is anything you would find objectionable.

Posted by dstb on Friday, February 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm

So why did you read it? Is writing a fair review worth the pain?

Posted by Stephan on Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 8:01 am

Once I've started a book, it has to be not "fair" but really bad to get me to stop. I keep thinking it will get better, or I'll miss something important if I quit. I also think there are books that are worth "having read," even if the reading itself isn't that enjoyable.

As for the review, I do think it important to review what I don't like as well as what I like; at least, I myself don't give much credibility to reviews that are always positive or always negative.

You have a point, though. If it weren't for my New Year's resolution, I probably wouldn't have begun the book, much less finished it. But it's a start on the huge backlog of unread books on our bookshelves. I'd be making more progress if I didn't keep getting new books that I want to read first....

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 8:34 am

And I hope the books you have finished are being cleaned off your shelves!

Posted by dstb on Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 9:46 am

Don't you know me better than that? They get a "read it" entry in my Book Collector database, but to actually... dispose of... a book??? Books come easily into this house, but they don't want to leave.

I may have to learn better, especially since I'm now getting review copies of books that I see no need to hang onto.

Actually, there was a time when we gave a lot of books to our local library's book sale, and I'm not averse to that, it's just that I've been burned at it. That is, at one point I decided to get rid of a lot of books on the grounds that I could get them from the library at any time, so why take up bookshelf space? But then our library decided to concentrate on the most popular books. Not only are they not acquiring the kinds of books you can't just go to a bookstore and buy, but they actually purged their shelves of the old, unpopular books to make room for the new. Now I'm afraid that if I get rid of an old book I won't be able to read it again without paying a huge "rare book" price.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 10:00 am