Anthony Lane, in a brilliant review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s recent book on Lewis Carroll’s life and work, featured in the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, poses a great question: what is the difference between knowing about something and knowing it firsthand?
Lane uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to explore this question, and as one who has always loved the story of Alice, but has never actually read Carroll’s book from start to finish, I was completely swept up in Lane’s argument in support of consuming original books whole in addition to summaries, reviews, or homages.
In the past, says Lane, anyone who could read had read the story of Alice in a topsy-turvy world. But today, Lane points out, most of us know Alice through what he calls “cultural osmosis” — she has been talked about and featured in such a variety of media that we may even believe we have read the book about her, when in all likelihood we have not. And he points out that the need to do so is “more urgent than ever.”
Why? It’s not that Carroll’s work is so life-changing that without reading it, we can’t be complete. Certainly there are some disquieting aspects of this book and its author. The point Lane is making is that there is no substitute for firsthand experience of marvelous language like Carroll’s. Lane aptly describes Carroll’s style as being “peppery” and “brisk,” “impatient of folly” and “alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb.”
Original language seasoned with a dash of brio or a pinch of flair grabs our attention and pushes us to expand our own ideas and expressions. But don’t take my word for it; read Lane’s peppery review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for yourself.