It’s probably a curious thing, but I’m 25 and I just finished reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass for the first time. It was an absolute pleasure to read Martin Gardner’s definitive edition in the form of the single volume Annotated Alice. I don’t regret having put off reading Lewis Carroll’s masterpieces until now. While she may not be beyond the ability of today’s children to understand and appreciate, I’m pretty sure well read adults with a childish sense of curiosity enjoy Alice’s company better. I can’t agree more with Gardner when he says
Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams. It is only because adults — scientists and mathematicians in particular — continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality.
Having read the Alice books at last, I’ll definitely reread them all my life. As stories, they form an infinite and endlessly diverting network of word play, semantic puzzles, linguistic riddles, and mathematical paradoxes which, for me, represents pure art. And most compelling of all, there are the unforgettable images: Alice falling down a seemingly bottomless pit wondering what it would be like to fall right through to the other side of the Earth; the Mad Hatter’s tea-party; the Cheshire Cat; the shape shifting shop; the conversation with Humpty Dumpty; the ever sleeping, ever dreaming Red King. Precisely because of the infinite nature of the network that is Alice’s dream, some of the lines in the books have percolated into popular culture and literature, having acquired myriad connotations. I’ll cite two examples, both from the Mad Hatter episode
“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“I want a clean cup,” interrupted the Hatter: “let’s all move one place on.”
The first one is a riddle; arguably the most devious riddle ever conceived. Gardner gives several possible solutions, including the one published by Carroll himself. In my opinion, the best and cleverest is Carroll’s.
For the first time reader, the annotations, which have a tendency to grow into mini-essays, tend to distract from the flow of Carroll’s engaging narrative. To get an unadulterated feel for the books on the first reading, I skipped most of the annotations and would in fact venture to suggest that all first time readers do so. Read separately, the scrupulously researched annotations are lively, entertaining (endlessly diverting? yes!) and a great source of indispensable information.