Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading a Book

One madness worthy of practice in the search of sanity is to do something so very rarely done it might be dubbed miraculous. That is actually to read one of the famous books everybody knows all about but only scholars ever read—and possibly they only do so because other scholars might then discover that they hadn’t, and then it would be Katie bar the door. March is a good time to start.

Contrarian that I am, I did that a while back, last fall, and read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Yep, the paper version, cover to cover. I have an ancient version with illustrations from the 1865 original. It’s not in very good shape, and if I took it to the Antiques Roadshow the next time it swings by, I wouldn’t get on camera with it. Where it comes from I don’t know, but on its blank outer page is a touching inscription in pencil in a rather childish hand:

December 25, 1909

It’s a fascinating experience to read a book like that in a quiet room, no music, you know what I mean. Reading is emphatically not the same as watching a movie, and the qualities that arise from the experience are radically different. For this very reason, I’ve always avoided movies made of classics, most recently shunning Lord of the Rings. Alice is a slender little book, a mere 159 pages in extent—and mad, mad, mad in that sense of the word suggesting that it presents a Higher Sanity.

Written as it was in the mid-nineteenth century—thus far enough back in time so that its relevance to current times might seen rather dubious—it is doubly effective as a portrait, no doubt, of social life in its time—and in ours, squared. Carroll was just falling into the rabbit hole and, on the historical time scale, described just the first few moments of that fall. We, by contrast, are in Wonderland. But it’s already all there: swimming in our own pools of tears, the caucus race which is, by definition, in a circle and everybody wins (then) and loses (now), the meaningless but harsh-sounding commands from above, the tea party that never ends, the house of cards. Some of the verse is amazing; it takes real genius to imitate the sound of sense while depriving each sentence of all coherent meaning.

What struck me as one quality of this book that simply can’t be captured in a movie is the relentless nature of the madness depicted. It goes on and on and on—and yet entertainingly, absorbingly, full of sound and fury, action and event. On and on. Unrelenting. Meaningless—except to show in dire mixture human values boiling away in mindless bursts of inanity. The script of today written a century-and-a-half ago.

To refresh my memory, I took a look at Disney’s treatment of the subject in cartoons and films, looking at trailers. It had me nodding my head. Alice in Wonderland these weren’t. Not as written. Not as experienced by those who’ve read the books. I look forward to reading the next great book I know all about but have never opened. Beats cable, every time.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, a caucus race overseen by a Dodo. How fitting.