I’ve decided to begin with the first book I ever read on the list: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol, a book I was in love with when I was about 8. On rereading it I felt the way I usually do when rereading my favourite kids books; a sort of empty nostalgia. Not that it isn’t a wonderful book! I still think it’s clever and funny and playful but I can’t help but feel the disconnect between my dry literary feelings about it now as opposed to the whole world it created for me when I was a child. But that’s the way it goes, I guess. Everything seems smaller and less magical when you’re no longer small and magical yourself.
In case you yourself have been living in a rabbit hole (ok, I’m sorry, that was pretty terrible but I’m going to run with it) the story begins with the titular Alice (does anyone else think that sounds dirty?) chasing a white rabbit with a pocket watch down a rabbit hole. From the first fall the laws of nature are reversed: Alice floats slowly and gently down a seemingly never-ending tunnel as her mind starts to fall into the strange un-logic of Wonderland. She then has all kinds of wacky adventures with talking animals, a metamorphosing landscape and a brutal Queen of Hearts.
Reading Alice is like walking through a dream, capturing the deceptively simple transposition of landscapes and that familiar feeling of being yourself and yet not yourself that Alice tries to explain to the caterpillar. Alice’s first room turns into a sea which lands her on a shore which becomes a forest which leads her to a manicured croquet garden. Nothing is as it seems, but Alice accepts this with the same logic with which we accept our dreams, wandering around and trying to make her way through without any particular fear. I love the philosophical play of the mad hatter’s ‘say what you mean’ vs. ‘mean what you say’ and the silly word play of the griffin and the mock turtle, whose teacher was another turtle called Tortoise because “he taught us”. Alice’s incessant interjections during any story told to her reminded me of my little cousins who love to interrupt my impromptu stories with logical questions that I can’t seem to answer.
The thing I have always loved best about Alice is the lack of obtuse morality. I’ve read in a few places (I can’t remember where or else I would cite it properly) that Alice was revolutionary in this respect: it clearly mocks the tradition of cautionary tales in favour of meandering adventure. One line I always remember is: “She had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them” andon rereading I also noticed this exchange between Alice and the Duchess, a rather unlikable character:
“‘I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.’
“‘Perhaps it hasn’t one,’ Alice ventured to remark.
“‘Tut, tut, child!’ said the Duchess. ‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.’” And she then proceeds to reel off a whole bunch of nonsensical and certainly inapplicable morals. This is again emphasised in the final moments when Alice’s sister reflects on her sister’s dreaming adventure and imagines that in the future Alice “will keep, through her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood… remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.” People can talk about the symbolism and the hidden metaphors and the philosophical implications of Alice, but for me it is a book about the simple, carefree time of childhood imagination and wonder.