penguins

penguin aliceSome Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions really outdo themselves – in fact, it’s coming to be my impression that most of them do. At first, I tended to bridle at their highly individualistic appearances – specially-commissioned cover illustrations (many of which are highly stylized), French flaps, deckle edges – it all seems like post-Vatican II guitars-in-church low-key heresy committed against the stately grandeur of the traditional simple black spines and classic art-reproduction cover illustrations I knew and loved. But the wonderful work that went into these volumes – the stellar editorial decisions in terms of which books to include (although here, as everywhere, there was the usual bracken of Graham Greene and Jack Kerouac) and also that varied aesthetic itself (if you put a large selection of these books all together on one shelf, you’ll be very pleased with the result – and you’ll be pleased in a very different way than when you put a bunch of the old black spines together on one shelf) – it all gradually won me alice flapover. Now I love seeing what the folks at Penguin will “Deluxe” next.

Very recently it was Lewis Carroll’s perennial crowd-pleasers, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, together in one eye-catching volume designed by Paul Buckley and featuring cover illustrations by “Bakea” that really capture the frightening edge of books’ familiar fantasies. Seeing these, I feared even so stylish an innovation would be taken too far, but no – I sighed with relief upon seeing that the actual text of the books is still lavished with the great John Tenniel black-and-white illustrations that have become synonymous with these stories.

The stories themselves never worked their magic on me, I must confess, and in true alice pageRoman Catholic form, I blamed them for that fact for the longest time. In recent decades, through patient re-reading, I’ve come to appreciate how well-crafted they are and have thus stopped condemning them out of hand – but they still don’t work any magic on me. I consider this a bit strange – to put it mildly, the imaginative flights of the Victorians tend to work their way straight to my heart and stay there, beating in time, year after year; here at Stevereads, I’ve made no secret of my love for Kipling’s The Jungle Books or Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and if you were to visit Hyde Cottage and crush a cup of wine with me, I wouldn’t require much prodding to confess that I consider Robert Louis Stevenson better than Shakespeare. This kind of idolatry never happened for me with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I suspect it’s a result, fittingly enough, of early exposure: I think I came to these books much too late for them to cast their magic.

Not so Charlie Lovett, who does the Introduction for this volume! The author the wonderful The Bookman’s Tale, he reveals here that he fell in love with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child, listening to a scratchy recording of the text performed by a British actor. “Thus began a lifelong love of Alice – a book that seemed so suited to me as a child and proved equally suited as I moved through adolescence to adulthood.”

And – again, appropriately enough considering the baroque insanity of the realm Alice lucy down the rabbit holeencounters – Lovett goes on to describe the happy loss of his own sanity down that deepest rabbit-hole of them all: book collecting:

As a young man I became interested in book collecting, having scouted editions of Robinson Crusoe for my father’s growing collection of that title. Remembering those days spent with Alice, I decided that her adventures might make a good subject for collection. I had never actually read the books – only listened to them – and I knew nothing about their author. I remember reading them for the first time and discovering sentences that had been obscured by skips in my records. Over the past thirty years, my collection has grown to include hundreds of editions of the Alice books, all of Lewis Carroll’s other books, many of his rare pamphlets, playbills, and theater posters, films, and recordings, and a large collection of biographical and critical editions.

“Hundreds of editions of the Alice books” … as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey might say, “Mad Hatters ain’t in it …”

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