Best Books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

cover of The Annotated AliceThe next work on my list of books everyone should read is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Today’s post is a quasi-review explaining why I think it belongs on that list, in particular with reference to the two standard criteria, what Chaucer called “sentence” and “solace,” or “edification” and “entertainment.”

Before I begin, I should mention that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland blends together with its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, in my memory. Much if perhaps not all of my reasoning applies to the sequel as well as to the original, and I do recommend Through the Looking Glass—but it wasn’t on my original list, so it’s beyond my scope here.

And for full enjoyment and understanding, I recommend The Annotated Alice, which explains much of Carroll’s obscure humor.

The first reason I’ve thought of is best introduced by a couple of verses from the first and second chapter of Ecclesiastes:

Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

I tried … embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a book of nonsense governed by, if perhaps not wisdom as Solomon or the Bible define it (that would be a matter for debate), at least knowledge and some degree of sense. (Carroll’s The Game of Logic is also on my list.) It’s sometimes wise, I think, to read books like this so that we can later recognize nonsense and folly when we see them presented as serious and reasonable ideas.

Second, whether we like it or not, nonsense and folly are a part of life, and as such, we ought to become at least passingly conversant with them. And Alice is one of the best portrayals of them I know of.

Illustration of the Mad Tea PartyThe third reason is a point that I’ve brought up for a few books on this list before: cultural background. There are many references that subsequent authors—and our peers—are likely to make to characters and events in Alice (many of which, admittedly, are in the sequel) that will be merely nonsense, not even humorous or pointed nonsense, to anyone who hasn’t been exposed to the book. The White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”) are but three examples.

And the fourth is, of course, delight. If one has a guide (such as the annotator of The Annotated Alice) to explain the more obscure bits, and one is old enough to not be frightened, Alice is tremendous fun to read. I have never met its like, except for Through the Looking Glass, among “nonsense literature” (though I admit I haven’t read much).

So, for edification and enjoyment, everyone ought to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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