A science writer, a mathematician, and a professor of English walk into a library… no, it’s not an unpromising joke, it’s a very promising-sounding multidisciplinary event taking place in Los Angeles on February 22.
As part of Visions and Voices: the University of Southern California Arts and Humanities Initiative, three very different intellects will be discussing Wonderland and the Mathematical Imaginary. The trio consists of Australian science writer Margaret Wertheim, who you may have seen crocheting a coral reef during a TED lecture; Francis Bonahon, a professor of mathematics at the USC Dornsife College and a specialist in hyperbolic geometry and quantum topology; and Jim Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Chair in English at the USC Dornsife College and specialist in Victorian literature, culture, criminality, lunacy, and perversion.
The discussion will be held at the historic Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library and will be followed by an “experimental play/workshop” where, it is promised, “participants can make and play with absurd mathematical objects.” The event will run from 11am – 1pm and admission is free and open to the public.
The organizers are the same folks who run the Wonderland Award, an annual competition that encourages new scholarship and creative work related to Lewis Carroll. The deadline for entries this year is April 2 — we’ll be sure to remind you again closer to the time.
Imagine this… You are tucked up in bed and have a brilliant idea that must be written down. It’s dark, it’s late, and bedside lights have not been invented yet. What do you do? If you are Lewis Carroll you invent an entirely new system of writing – a card template of square holes, and a square alphabet to fit inside. Problem solved!
Any one who has tried, as I have often done, the process of getting out of bed at 2 a.m. in a winter night, lighting a candle, and recording some happy thought which would probably be otherwise forgotten, will agree with me it entails much discomfort. All I have now to do, if I wake and think of something I wish to record, is to draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my Nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages, without even putting the hands outside the bed-clothes, replace the book, and go to sleep again. – Lewis Carroll, Letter to The Lady magazine in October 1891
A nyctograph, reconstructed by Noah Slater
The Square Alphabet
In 2005, LCSNA-member Alan Tannenbaum built a square alphabet font and transcribed and produced a limited edition of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – some of you may be proud owners of the rare “Square Alice.” Now, for the first time, a square alphabet edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been published by Evertype and is for sale on Amazon. Below is an example of the text – it’s the passage that begins “‘Are you content now?’ said the Caterpillar,” though you may need a light on to read it.
"Are you content now?" said the Caterpillar.
The edition includes a forward by Alan Tannenbaum and an introduction by publisher Michael Everson on the challenges of the typography. Very little else has been written about Carroll’s nyctograph, but closely related devices may lie all around you – Carroll’s invention prefigured the types of text-entry systems used for tablet computers by 100 years. His own square alphabet has even been cited as inspiration for a unistroke text entry method designed for people with sight or motor impairments.
If you can’t help but try to back-transcribe the passage above (I couldn’t), don’t forget about punctuation. It seems letter characters all have a large dot in the top left of the square, while punctuation characters have a large dot in the lower right.
In the summer of 1864, Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and her two sisters, Lorina (who inspired the Lory) and Edith (who inspired the Eaglet), posed for up to 10 hours a day while the distinguished English artist, Sir William Blake Richmond, created one of his most famous paintings, called The Sisters. The painting of the three Liddell sisters set against the background of the Great Orme, Llandudno’s famous mountain, is one of the highlights of the Tate Liverpool’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition. Sir William Blake Richmond painted the portraits of the most prominent people of the day. The Sisters, well received by the art critics of the day, was regarded by Richmond as a milestone in his career. Sir William had this to say about Alice Liddell:
“Little Alice, to whose pretty face and lovely coloring no reproduction can do justice, is seen on the right in profile, peering at the big volume on her sister’s lap.” [continue reading…]
Well, he partially uses the short article in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair to plug his own children’s books, but his reverence for Looking Glass is genuine:
Salman Rushdie, c. 1988
By the time Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking-Glass, in 1871—140 years ago this month—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) was already a beloved book. So the pressure was on; Carroll faced a real “follow-that problem.” … “Still she haunts me, phantomwise,” he wrote in the book’s epilogue, and thank goodness she did, because Through the Looking-Glass was anything but an anticlimax, giving us the Jabberwock, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Walrus and the Carpenter to add to Carroll’s pantheon of magnificently nonsensical immortals. [continue reading.]
…So when I learned about What Middletown Read, a database that tracks the borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library between 1891 and 1902, I had some of the same feelings physicists probably have when new subatomic particles show up in their cloud chambers. Could you see how many times a particular book had been taken out? Could you find out when? And by whom? Yes, yes, and yes. You could also find out who those patrons were: their age, race, gender, occupation (and whether that made them blue or white collar, skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled), and their names and how they signed them.
John Plotz at Slate.com explains the What Middletown Read database, the labor of Ball State University English Professor Frank Felsenstein. We at the LCSNA were naturally immediately curious about how often Lewis Carroll books were checked out, and the result is mysteriously bare: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the only Carroll book that the Muncie Public Library owned, wasn’t acquired until 1900, and then only checked out ten times in an eight month period. Unless we’re missing something, that’s it. Perhaps it wasn’t popular in the midwest until later, or perhaps it was a common book in private collections therefore unnecessary in the public library? Or maybe the local pick-a-little-talk-a-littles thought it was a “dirty book,” like BALZAC. If anyone has any theories, please comment.
Rounding off our coverage of the Tate Liverpool’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition, here’s a video interview with co-curator Christop Schulz that gives some tantalizing glimpses of the artwork on display.
Yesterday, chief art critic at the UK Telegraph newspaper, Richard Dorment, gave the exhibition a three star review (“by no means all the work in the show is terrible . . .”), nevertheless, we still wish Liverpool was a little easier to get to on public transit (from California). For the rest of this month we will focus on Alice news and events more accessible to folks in the New World, we promise.
The catalog for the Tate Liverpool’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition is now for sale on the Tate’s website. Edited by Gavin Delahunty, head of exhibitions and displays at Tate Liverpool, and Christoph Schulz, curator of the exhibition, it reproduces the art of the exhibition in 120 color illustrations. Also included are critical essays by Dame Gillian Beer, Alberto Manguel, and Edward Wakeling, and a new fairy tale by Carol Mavor.
Issue 187 of Prospect Magazine contains a good article on the influence of the Alice books written by Richard Jenkyns, professor of Classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. The article is free to read on Prospect’s website.
Jenkyns makes several interesting points that may get LCSNA members thinking and, perhaps, arguing.
Here are some extracts:
Previously, most books for children had been either educational or improving; the only purpose of Alice is to give pleasure. We have grown so used to bunnies in blue jackets with brass buttons that it is hard to remember how comparatively recent such things are…
Dreams are a solipsist’s kingdom: nothing exists in them except the dreamer. It is appropriate, therefore, that the people and creatures that Alice meets in Wonderland lack roundedness and solidity…
Figures like the Red and White Queens and the White Knight come with distinct personalities independent of Alice’s imagining. It makes sense of a kind for there to be speculation in the looking-glass world about whether someone else is dreaming of Alice; to pose that question in Wonderland would be preposterous.
Avax News is a website for interesting photos. Their mission is clearly stated:
Every day, Lord Almighty is responsible for hundred thousands of fascinating and mysterious events in our earthly existence, which people gaze upon with wonder through the lenses of the camera. The most gripping of those images you can find within these pages. Nothing less, nothing more. It’s just you and the images you see.
Earlier this year they posted a nice collection of high-quality Carroll-related photos under the sub-heading “Appealing.” There are images of Carroll, by Carroll, and of various stage productions. If you are looking for high quality images of a decent size, it may prove very helpful indeed. I would only caution against venturing away from the Carroll images via other sub-headings such as “Sad” or “Disgusting.” You know the internet. You have been warned.
Baby Leroy as "Joker" in the Paramount production of “Alice in Wonderland” (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images). 1933