by Finnegan Schick, VI Form
Can you remember what it was like to be illiterate? That was an individual dark age, sometime before your fifth or sixth birthday, which was filled with strange symbols: black and white icons sprawled across book pages, on shop windows, and on the sides of trucks. The world of words was the world of your parents, mysterious, silent…and agonizingly boring. Young Alice Liddell, just before her famous journey to Wonderland, asks herself, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” The answer, for young children, is simple. Such lackluster books, full of meaningless words and dry chapter-headings, are useless.
However, as all grown readers can attest, this period of literary immaturity passes. Our vocabularies grow, and with them our appetites for more complex books with fewer pictures and more words. We gradually reach an age when there seems to be nothing out of our reach, no book too wordy or sentence too difficult. With newfound access to a dictionary and thesaurus, our vocabularies increase thousand-fold. Many a reader has reached this plateau of reading, however, and stopped. So many contemporary books do not demand of their readers much more than a high-school education; they are written, not to challenge, but merely to entertain. All readers must ask themselves, however, whether they have really reached the zenith. Where can one go from here? Can one really push oneself further? If so, with which book?
Hidden away in the annals of libraries, however, are books that are up to the task. Take, for instance, the novel Ulysses by the Irish author James Joyce. Published first in 1922, this work is filled with modernist literary abnormalities. Some chapters are written in Old English, some have stage directions, and others take place entirely in the minds of characters. In addition to these departures from standard narrative, Ulysses also contains a whole new vocabulary of strange and unfamiliar words that challenge even the most determined reader. How does one react to the sound “Krandlkrankran” (a streetcar), the words “impertgnthn thnthnthn” (impertinent insolence), or the sentence “Jiggedy jingle jaunty jaunty”(a fast, bouncing automobile)? Some books, Ulysses included, force us to question and test the reading skills we have so proudly built up (and arguably become stagnant with) through the years. These words and phrases are not written to confuse or stump. They demonstrate to the reader that our everyday vocabulary falls short in describing certain experiences. What other words could possibly be used to describe someone who “smiledyawnednodded all in one”? Here, words are no longer placeholders for objects or ideas; they become embodiments of the action they describe. The smiling, yawning, and nodding fuse into a new, more inclusive verb.
Another body of work, that of William Blake (1757-1827), also twists and stretches one’s ideas of normalcy. Unlike Joyce, who wrote twenty years into the twentieth century, Blake’s artistic play was well ahead of the modernist movement. Blake was both a poet and a painter, and while his work has been around for two hundred years, both his poems and his paintings are difficult even for the modern reader to understand. His art looks more like Salvador Dali than the paintings of his Romantic contemporaries ( Blake’s The Ancient of Days, 1794 is on the right). Perplexing students for two centuries has been his much-anthologized poem “The Tyger.” Here is its first stanza:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry.
Blake is quite clearly writing about a tiger, but the strangeness and mystery with which he does in the supporting lines reveal the abstract nature of his writing. Reading Blake in eighteenth century must have been like reading Joyce in the twentieth: bewildering, demanding, and incredibly thought-provoking. Lewis Carroll himself understood the importance of challenging readers to discard convention and to mentally wrestle with non-traditional writing. His Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There manipulate logic within a confounding fantasy world that requires a reader to delve into imagination. Similar to Joyce’s invention of words in Ulysses, Carroll utilizes portmanteaus and originally devised words in a nonsense poem titled “Jabberwocky” within the sequel novel. Its first stanza evinces the challenge for the reader to process and understand:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Literature would never evolve or change without artists like this.
Even the best readers have room for growth. The sacred rules of reading and writing we are taught in school must eventually be confronted and defied. Just as books with pictures became obsolete for Alice as she grew up, so must traditional literary methods be replaced by newer, more experimental styles. After all, what it is the use of a book, pictures or no pictures, if it doesn’t challenge, doesn’t question, doesn’t change and shape the mind of the reader?
Finnegan Schick is a VI Form day student from Southborough. His hobbies include reading dangerous literature, watching foreign films, and playing basketball with his younger brother Oscar.
The Ancient of Days: http://www.2u3d.com/love-grace-light/on-seeing-things-as-they-are.htm