The Book That's Meant The Most To Me...
Joyce Carol Oates, Who Reads At UCCC On Oct. 26, Writes
No work of art so thrills us, or possesses the power to
enter our souls deeply and perhaps even irreversibly,
as the "first" of its kind. The luminous books
of our childhood will remain the luminous books of our
For me, it was Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures
in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass," a Christmas
gift from my grandmother when I was 8 years old. First
of all, I was enchanted by the book as a physical object,
for there were few books in our rural household: both
Alice tales were published in a single, wonderful volume
(Grosset & Dunlap, 1946) with reproductions of the
famous illustrations by John Tenniel, almost as fascinating
to me as the tales themselves. There was a dreamlike cover
showing Alice amid the comical-grotesque Carroll creations
that, to an adult eye, bear a disturbing kinship with
the comical-grotesque creations of Hieronymus Bosch, and
this cover, too, was endlessly fascinating. In my memory,
this first important book of my life was quite large,
about the size of what we call today a coffee-table book,
and heavy; but when I investigate -- for of course I still
have the book in my 19th-century British bookcase, along
with "The Hunting of the Snark," Lewis Carroll's
"Bedside Book," and other Carroll titles --
I discover to my surprise that it measures only 6 1/2
by 9 inches! A quite ordinary-sized book after all.
What is the perennial appeal of the Alice books? If you
could transpose yourself into a girl of 8, in 1946, in
a farming community in upstate New York north of Buffalo,
imagine the excitement of opening so beautiful a book
to read a story in which a girl of about your age is the
heroine; imagine the excitement of being taken along with
Alice, who talks to herself continually, just like you,
whose signature phrase is "Curiouser and curiouser,"
on her fantastic yet somehow plausible adventure down
the rabbit hole, and into the Wonderland world. It would
not have occurred to me even to suspect that the "children's
tale" was in brilliant ways coded to be read by adults
and was in fact an English classic, a universally acclaimed
intellectual tour de force and what might be described
as a psychological/anthropological dissection of Victorian
England. It seems not to have occurred to me that the
child-Alice of drawing rooms, servants, tea and crumpets
and chess, was of a distinctly different background than
my own. I must have been the ideal reader: credulous,
unjudging, eager, thrilled. I knew only that I believed
in Alice, absolutely.
The influence of the "Alice" books on my inner
life is surely incalculable. I'd more or less memorized
them as a child from repeated readings. (I've subsequently
written on the subject, and have several times taught
"Alice" in university courses.) At any time,
in any place, appropriate or otherwise, including even
listening as I'm being introduced to give readings or
lectures, and often in social or professional gatherings,
the Alice-voice rises to consciousness and I hear "Curiouser
and curiouser" -- "Who cares for you? You're
nothing but a pack of cards!" -- "Twas brillig
and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/All
mimsy were the borogoves,/And the mome raths outgrabe"
-- "Take care of yourself! Something's going to happen!"
Impossible to know if a fictitious character has provided
me with a "voice," or whether my natural voice
was nearly identical with Alice's.
To descend down a rabbit hole, to push through a mirror
in a drawing room, to enter that "other world"
of the imagination -- this is Alice's destiny, as it might
be said to be our collective destiny, if only we value
it and cultivate it. For the artist of any kind, the experience
is life itself. What is most wonderful about the "Alice"
tales, for a child reader at least, is that though they
contain nightmare material, and are, intermittently, really
quite frightening, Alice triumphs in the end; she retains
a fundamental reason, fair-mindedness and sense of justice,
as well as a necessary sense of humor, and at the end
of both adventures she "wakes" to her real life
about which we know nothing other than that she has a
sister and there are several kittens in the household.
Not for Alice, our Alice, the fate of children in the
crueler of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, for
Alice is the self's very obduracy, forever innocent, and
Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over 70 books. She
will be giving readings and answering questions at Ulster
County Community College in Stone Ridge on Tuesday, October
26 at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Her most recent books include
a first young adult work and the critically-hailed new
novel, The Falls. For information, phone the College's
Office of Community Relations at (845) 687-5262.