Boswell records that Samuel Johnson had read Daniel Defoe and “allowed a considerable share of merit to a man, who, bred a tradesman, had written so variously and so well.” The comment points to a truth about Defoe: a Protestant through and through, he had an amazingly catholic mind. It is, indeed, hard to think of another writer of imaginative literature who, in his journalism and pamphleteering, took on such an extraordinary range of subjects: finance, trade, religion, politics, travel, medicine, science, architecture, farming, horticulture, morals, and manners, among others.

The British journalist Richard West aims to pay tribute to this range of interests in his entertaining and refreshing biography, Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures.[1] For West, Defoe’s story became compelling not because of a lingering childhood attachment to Robinson...


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