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a curiouser librarian goes down the rabbit hole

Thank you for joining me! I've styled my blog with Alice in Wonderland in mind, so let me tell you about that in this first post.

When I was a child, there were many books in our house. Both my parents were big readers, and I was very curious about their books. I remember feeling the weight of the hardcover edition of Pride and Prejudice in my hands and thinking that the first sentence of the story, which I tried very often to read but could not understand, was as heavy as the book itself.

One year, when my Mom and Dad bought a set of Collier's encyclopedias, they also bought my sister and me our own collection of classic children’s stories and nursery rhymes–admittedly, a very white, western, mostly male canon. Our bookshelves housed both the Child’s World seven-volume set and the Collier’s Junior Classics ten-volume "Young Folks’ Shelf of Books." Our editions of each fell along a continuum of publishing going back to the 1930s and 1940s.

I had favorites in both of these series. I was charmed by the Robert Louis Stevenson poems in the Child’s World volume "Stories of Childhood." Today I still thrill at a view of far distant fields, and I still think of it as a "counterpane." I also loved the dashes of bright color in the dreamy watercolor illustrations that accompanied each poem.

In the 5th volume of theYoung Folks’ Shelf of Books there was a story that riveted me with its astonishing narrative: Alice in Wonderland, reproduced in its entirety with the whimsical, woodcut prints by Sir John Tenniel. In Alice I read of an ordinary girl, much like myself, who was bored with the pastimes of her older sister and longed for something fun to do. But there ended all similarities with my life—from one page to the next, Alice was catapulted into a tantalizing but vexatious world, full of animals that talked and argued and contradicted her as she traipsed from one nonsensical encounter to the next. And, although I would not have been able to articulate this then, I was mesmerized by this strong child/female protagonist, who despite the challenges she faced—like being completely on her own in a preposterous world—prevailed over inane creatures and adults alike.

The story was written by Lewis Carroll, a pseudonym of Charles Dodgson, who studied and lectured in mathematics at Christ Church college, Oxford. He wrote the story for the young daughters of Henry Liddell, the dean of his college. One of these daughters was named Alice, and it is believed that he fashioned his female lead after her. He titled his manuscript Alice's Adventures Under Ground, but by 1865, when the story was going to be published, he had changed the title to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Macmillan of London published the book in England, with the delightful illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. In the United States, the publisher D. Appleton & Company issued the book around the same time, which of course places its release during the American Civil War. I wonder what the reception of this fantastical work was during wartime.

There have been countless editions and versions of this story produced ever since. I recently re-watched the Tim Burton film version from 2010, and while I generally approve of a new take on a classic tale, I don't care for the bleak setting in this movie. Of course, I understand that the setting reflects the red Queen's cruel reign; but it seems overdone. As a child, there was something inherently troubling about inexplicable creatures, including a highly combustible Queen, amid a colorful, bewitching backdrop.

Many years later I am still enthralled with the story, and as a prodigious reader and a librarian as well, I think of the "wonderland" of texts I have had the great privilege to encounter ever since reading Alice for the first time. This journey down the rabbit hole continues for me, and I will be writing about it in these pages: thoughts on book history, print culture history, publishing history, indie publishers and bookstores, book reviews, book festivals, book awards, libraries and librarianship, digital libraries, archives, special collections, and so much more. Please join me!


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