Thursday, April 21, 2011

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

(Book Review)

So here I am, only now as an adult finally getting around to reading this classic piece of children's literature. (Although I suspect I might be in good company on this. I'd be curious to see if most other people read this book as a child or as an adult.)

As a child I never cared to read this book. Partly because I was so over-exposed to the story that there didn't seem any point in actually reading the book.
As a child I saw multiple versions of this story on film. Mainly the Disney version (which, as a big fan of Disney animation I watched more times than I can count). But school teachers also seemed fond of showing us other movie versions back in elementary school. And at least once (in fourth grade I think it was) my class all got taken to a play of "Alice in Wonderland." Also in my house we had the Fisher-Price deluxe comic book and tape set of Alice in Wonderland, which retold the story in an abridged form.

So, like a lot of childhood classics, this story was spoiled for me by overexposure long before I developed the reading ability to try it for myself. (It's a shame, most children's classics are probably spoiled for children in this way.)

But also I have to say that I never really particularly cared for the story of Alice in Wonderland.
For one thing, at the end of the story the whole thing turns out to be just a dream, and as I child I always hated stories that turned out to be just someone's dream. (I'm still not wild about these kind of stories actually.)
Also I didn't much care for the episodic nature of the story, and the fact that it did not have any sort of linear plot. And, I also shared Alice's frustration with the way everything in Wonderland refused to make sense. It's not that I didn't understand all the puns and jokes. I got them, but I didn't think they were all that funny, and I shared Alice's frustration that none of the characters in Wonderland were able to give up their literal view of looking at words and so the conversation just went round in circles.
(I don't know if this says anything in particular about the kind of child I was, or if this is just common for lots of children.)

But, now as an adult, I've decided to finally go back and check this book off my reading list. Why?
1). The standard desire to be a well read person and work my way through all the great classics
2). Because of my interest in Victorian era history, I've also been trying to read more Victorian era literature.
3). Increasingly it seems like more and more authors I read quote from Lewis Carroll anyway, so I thought it might be worth while to go back and read the original book for myself.

For example Stephen Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct" quoted often from Lewis Carroll to illustrate the peculiarities of English grammar. When describing a dummy element in a sentence that exists only to satisfy the rules of syntax, Pinker quotes the following passage from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

I proceed [said the Mouse]. "Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him: and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable--"'
`Found WHAT?' said the Duck.
`Found IT,' the Mouse replied rather crossly: `of course you know what "it" means.'
`I know what "it" means well enough, when I find a thing,' said the Duck: `it's generally a frog or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?'

And indeed, the whole book is filled with these types of plays on the English language.
As is probably true of any story that relies excessively on puns for humor, there are some real groaners mixed in as well. Observe:

”If I’d been the whiting,” said Alice, whose thoughts were still running on the song. “I’d have said to the porpoise, “Keep back, please: we don’t want you with us!”
“They were obliged to have him with them,” the Mock Turtle said: “no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”
“Wouldn’t it really?” said Alice in a tone of great surprise.
“Of course not,” said the Mock Turtle: “why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say, “With what porpoise?’”
“Don’t you mean ‘purpose’?” said Alice.
“I mean what I say,” the Mock Turtle replied In an offended tone

I leave it to you whether the pay off for that joke was worth the set-up.

[Quick sidenote: reading this book did get me curious as to how "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is translated. Because I know it is popular in many other languages. While I was living in Japan, for example, I knew the books was available in the Japanese language as "Fushigi na Kuni no Alisu." I never really thought much of it at the time. Most Western classics are popular with the Japanese in translation. But after having read this book myself, I can only imagine how much headaches it must have caused the translator.]

Just as some of the word play in this book struck me as better than others, so I found large sections of this book to be quite clever, and other parts seemed just silly nonsense.

Although after having consulted the wikipedia entry on this book, I am wondering now if large parts of this book I did not appreciate because it was simply over my head.

For example, consider the excerpt below:

"I'll try if I know all the things I used to know," [said Alice]. "Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is - oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn't signify: let's try Geography..."

When I read this I just thought: "well that's pretty stupid. Is this what passes for humor?"

According to Wikipedia, however: This explores the representation of numbers using different bases and positional numeral systems: 4 x 5 = 12 in base 18 notation, 4 x 6 = 13 in base 21 notation, and 4 x 7 could be 14 in base 24 notation. Continuing this sequence, going up three bases each time, the result will continue to be less than 20 in the corresponding base notation. (After 19 the product would be 1A, then 1B, 1C, 1D, and so on.)

Well that went right over my head. Now that wikipedia explains the joke to me, I can appreciate it, but I certainly didn't get it at the time.

Likewise, a lot of the nonsense poems that pop up in this book I thought were just pretty stupid the first time reading them. After wikipedia explained to me that Lewis Carroll was parodying other poems already in existence, I appreciate them a lot more.

I was in the bookstore once, and I saw a book called "The Annotated Alice" (W), which has extensive margin notes explaining everything. I regret to say I didn't buy it. But if I ever read this book again, I think I should get the annotated version.

A couple other sidenotes:
1). I'm not sure the characterization of Alice in this book was entirely consistent. She seemed to be very childlike and naive at sometimes, and very adult like and intelligent at other times. It seemed to me that in any given situation she just had whatever reaction was needed to set up the joke or pun. But maybe I'm being harsh.

2). I was a bit surprised to find out that many of the characters and poems I associated with this book (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Walrus and the Carpenter) never actually made an appearance. Turns out (again according to Wikipedia) that they are all from the second book "Through the Looking Glass." (Maybe I'll have to read that one next.)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Anarchism (Rare UK Radio Appearance)

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