Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll

Alice Liddell (right) with her sisters in a photo by Lewis Carroll
Reviewed by Christina

Complete Title and Author info: The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by John Tenniel.  Edited and annotated by Martin Gardner.

Published: 1999

It's about:  This edition includes both of Lewis Carroll's classic children's books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with their original illustrations as well as a "suppressed" episode called "The Wasp in a Wig."
"Each of these texts is accompanied by a lengthy marginal commentary [by Carroll scholar Martin Gardner] that identifies historical and literary references and allusions, explains Carroll's logical and mathematical puzzles, and interprets colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions. Gardner's commentary is sufficiently detailed to be informative without burdening Alice with excessive pedantic baggage." (Library Journal Review)

I thought: If I had read any other edition of the Alice books, I feel certain that I would not have enjoyed them.  I've always avoided reading Lewis Carroll (despite his being a childhood favorite of my husband's) because the idea of nonsense literature is unappealing to me.  I didn't appreciate the Alice story even when I was a kid; the idea of a world where nothing makes sense was so confusing and exasperating (even a little frightening) that I couldn't find the intended humor in it.

So I'm very surprised at how much I loved reading The Annotated Alice.  I learned so much about Lewis Carroll (and his math prof alter-ego, Charles Dodgson) and Victorian England, while at the same time exploring the dream world of Alice Liddell.  It was almost like reading fiction and nonfiction at once!  Awesome!  And you know, with historical and biographical context most of the nonsense makes some kind of sense.  I could never have appreciated these texts without that context.  In fact I enjoyed Gardner's commentary at least as much as the story itself.  Most of the information in the annotations could probably be found online (the wikipedia articles alone are decent) but I don't think I would have done the research on my own- I loved having it right there in the same book next to the text.

One thing I've been thinking about:  there are some pretty scary/disturbing images in these books, considering the intended audience.  I'm thinking about Jabberwocky and the "Pig and Pepper" chapter in particular.  Alice is seven when the books take place, so I think that's probably the approximate age group Carroll had in mind.  I've been thinking about how children's literature has changed since the Alices were first published in 1865.  Were Victorian children unsettled by certain chapters and/or illustrations in these books?  Did they enjoy them partly because of the scariness?  Do we baby children in our storytelling nowadays?  What do you think?

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!  There are probably readers out there who would prefer to read these stories without commentary so that they can draw their own conclusions about Carroll and his intended meaning (or lack thereof).  But I'm definitely not imaginative or creative enough for that business.

text on the left, annotations on the right.
Reading Recommendations:  Give yourself time to sort of study this one.  I loved reading it slowly enough to absorb the information in the notes.

Warnings: nada

Favorite excerpts: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

“Take care of the sounds and the sense will take care of itself.” 

What I'm reading nextNomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali