January 11, 2012

The CCLaP 100: "Alice Through the Lookingglass," by Lewis Carroll

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Alice Through the Lookingglass, by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
By Lewis Carroll
Book #63 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Written in 1871, six years after the original, this sequel to Alice in Wonderland is designed to be yet another piece of nonsensical, absurdist storytelling, picking up soon after the first book left off and this time with Alice stepping through a large mirror to reach Lewis Carroll's notorious funhouse alt-universe instead of falling down a rabbithole. As such, then, there's not much of a three-act plot to actually convey, but rather a series of silly, unconnected adventures presented vignette-style, although with it important to note that Carroll designed these adventures to often relate to the original book in clever, symmetrical ways -- so while Wonderland uses playing cards as its main theme, deploys changes in size as a frequent plot device, and opens on the spring day of May 4th, Lookingglass uses chess as its main theme, deploys changes in time as a frequent plot device, and opens on the autumn day of November 4th.

The argument for it being a classic:
You frankly don't find a lot of people arguing specifically for Lookingglass as a standalone classic; but certainly there's a lot of people who think that the two short Alice books should actually be considered one long volume, and that such a volume should absolutely be in the standard canon of classics. And that's because Carroll came along at just the right precise moment in history for something like this; a long-haired bohemian when younger who was best friends with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, this movement's obsession with pre-Renaissance fairytales and the like came right when British children were becoming literate by the tens of millions for the very first time, when Sigmund Freud was profoundly changing the way we thought about dreams and the subconscious mind, and when organic forms based on nature were all the rage in architecture, theatre, and interior design. Carroll's delightfully bizarre and precious stories exactly scratched an itch that a wide swath of the population had, elevating the quality of children's stories beyond the simple-to-memorize folk tales they had mostly been before, and tapping into a mania for fantasia that would eventually blossom into the trillion-dollar "fantasy" genre we have today.

The argument against:
Just like its supporters, this book's critics become so mostly predicated on whether you consider Wonderland and Lookingglass two smaller volumes or one larger one; because if it's the former, they argue that the second book can't possibly stand up to the greatness of the original, and in fact can often come across as tired and wearying when reading both books in a row. Other than that, about the only other argument you find against Carroll online is simply that his writing style is overhyped, and that even though the Alice books can be entertaining to be sure, perhaps it's best not to call them undisputed classics that every person should read before they die.

My verdict:
So let's just admit that today is one of those days when one of my original rules regarding this essay series is coming back to haunt me -- basically, to avoid as much as possible books I've already read, because of the CCLaP 100 mostly coming about in the first place as a way of getting myself better educated as a book reviewer. So while it would've been easy to declare the original Wonderland a classic if I had been reading that (which like most Americans I seem to have almost completely memorized by now, because of all the endless adaptations that have come out since), this becomes a lot more problematic when it comes to the sequel, because except for a few highlights (the "Jabberwocky" poem, the walrus story that inspired the Beatles song), Lookingglass is clearly inferior in both originality and lasting cache, and it's hard to argue for its classic status when such a better volume is laying there right next to it.

But still, there's as equally a strong argument that it was Lookingglass that actually cemented the reputation of both books -- after all, Wonderland was passionately loved when it first came out but only by a cult audience, with it not being until the sequel that both books finally caught on with the mainstream -- so I guess it doesn't really hurt to count the two as one larger volume, certainly something that Carroll himself would've wanted you to do too. And when you do that, it's nearly impossible to deny the cultural importance Alice has had to society, a story collection that not only upped the sophistication of children's literature in a huge way but that has sparked the imagination of literally every generation since, its id-inspired creatures standing in over the decades for everything from British political issues to psychiatry to the countercultural mindset. Although just Wonderland will do in a pinch, I encourage you to instead read both these quick reads if you're going to be tackling one of them anyway, the first so you can say you did and the second so you'll actually get some original stories you've never heard before.

Is it a classic? Yes, but only if you consider both Alice volumes to be one larger whole

The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Read even more about Alice Through the Lookingglass: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Project Gutenberg | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:14 AM, January 11, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |