Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Carroll’

13 JUNE, 2014

How to Learn: Lewis Carroll’s Four Rules for Digesting Information and Mastering the Art of Reading

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“Mental recreation is a thing that we all of us need for our mental health.”

Long before he met the real-life little girl who inspired him to write Alice in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a prominent mathematician and logician. In addition to his scientific bend and his love of language, Carroll also had strong convictions about what it takes to cultivate a healthy mind. He married all three of these passions in the introductory essay to one of his textbooks on Symbolic Logic, included in the fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — the same compendium of scientists’ irreverent ideas and comments that gave us this wonderful 1969 essay on how laughter saves us from the despotism of automation and that goes on to explore such curiosities as the physics of holding up a strapless dress and the math of why any horse actually has an infinite number of legs.

Under the unambiguous title “How to Learn,” Carroll offers four pointers on cultivating critical thinking and digesting even the most challenging of passages while reading.

The Learner, who wishes to try the question fairly, whether this little book does, or does not, supply the materials for a most interesting mental recreation, is earnestly advised to adopt the following Rules:

  1. Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!, and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights. This Rule (of not dipping) is very desirable with other kinds of books—-such as novels, for instance, where you may easily spoil much of the enjoyment you would otherwise get from the story, by dipping into it further on, so that what the author meant to be a pleasant surprise comes to you as a matter of course. Some people, I know, make a practice of looking into Vol. III first, just to see how the story ends: and perhaps it is as well just to know that all ends happily—that the much-persecuted lovers do marry after all, that he is proved to be quite innocent of the murder, that the wicked cousin is completely foiled in his plot and gets the punishment he deserves, and that the rich uncle in India (Qu. Why in India? Ans. Because, somehow, uncles never can get rich anywhere else) dies at exactly the right moment—-before taking the trouble to read Vol. I.

    This, I say, is just permissible with a novel, where Vol. III has a meaning, even for those who have not read the earlier part of the story; but, with a scientific book, it is sheer insanity: you will find the latter part hopelessly unintelligible, if you read it before reaching it in regular course.

  2. Don’t begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point, and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set. So long as you are conscious that all the land you have passed through is absolutely conquered, and that you are leaving no unsolved difficulties behind you, which will be sure to turn up again later on, your triumphal progress will be easy and delightful. Otherwise, you will find your state of puzzlement get worse and worse as you proceed, till you give up the whole thing in utter disgust.
  3. When you come to any passage you don’t understand, read it again: if you still don’t understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired. In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
  4. If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything—in Logic or in any other hard subject—that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one’s self! And then, you know, one is so patient with one’s self: one never gets irritated at one’s own stupidity!

If, dear Reader, you will faithfully observe these Rules, and so give my little book a really fair trail, I promise you, most confidently, that you will find Symbolic Logic to be one of the most, if not the most, fascinating of mental recreations!

[…]

Mental recreation is a thing that we all of us need for our mental health; and you may get much healthy enjoyment, no doubt, from Games… But, after all, when you have made yourself a first-rate player at any one of these Games, you have nothing real to show for it, as a result! You enjoyed the Game, and the victory, no doubt, at the time: but you have no result that you can treasure up and get real good out of. And, all the while, you have been leaving unexplored a perfect mine of wealth. Once master the machinery of Symbolic Logic, and you have a mental occupation always at hand, of absorbing interest, and one that will be of real use to you in any subject you may take up. It will give you clearness of thought—the ability to see your way through a puzzle—the habit of arranging your ideas in an orderly and get-at-able form—and, more valuable than all, the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments, which you will so continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons, and which so easily delude those who have never taken the trouble to master this fascinating Art. Try it. That is all I ask of you!

A Random Walk in Science is a gem in its entirety. Complement this particular bit with Carroll on feeding the mind and his tips on dining etiquette, then revisit this 1936 guide to the 14 ways to acquire knowledge.

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08 APRIL, 2014

Gorgeous and Rare Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by John Vernon Lord

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The intricate art of confounding expectations.

“Words mean more than we mean to express when we use them,” Lewis Carroll once wrote in a letter to a friend, “so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.”

Perhaps due to its timelessly whimsical nature, Alice in Wonderland — the umbrella title given to Lewis Carroll’s classic duo Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, inspired by a real-life little girl he once knew — has commanded a number of artful visual interpretations over the years, by some of history’s most celebrated artists — from John Tenniel’s original engravings to Leonard Weisgard’s gorgeous 1949 illustrations to Salvador Dalí’s little-known heliogravures to legendary cartoonist Ralph Steadman’s 1973 masterpiece to Yayoi Kusama’s unmistakable dotted fancy, and even some remarkable 3-D paper engineering. But among the most enchanting is the special ultra-limited edition Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (public library) illustrated by British artist John Vernon Lord — one of the most imaginative literary illustrators working today, who also gave us those spectacular recent illustrations for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The Alice volume was originally printed in an edition of only 420 signed and numbered copies, of which 98 came with a special set of prints.

Lord writes in the afterword to his glorious edition:

There is hardly anything new to be said about Lewis Carroll’s two ‘Alice’ books. So much has been written about them. Their contents have been probed by the scalpels of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, annotators, enthusiasts and the journalists. Perhaps I should include illustrators among this group, for it is the illustrator’s duty to get to grips with the text and thus make a visual commentary upon it.

Readers of the text and viewers of the illustrations also make a book their own. Each one of us interprets stories and pictures in our own way and each one of us is unique. . . . [But] I think we have to be careful not to look for too many possible meanings that we might think may be lurking within the text of Carroll’s Alice books. It is very tempting to do so and many writers have done just that, sometimes disturbingly, often without evidence, and sometimes in a most delightfully illuminating way.

And yet Lord’s own illustrations invite a wealth of meaning — the most “delightfully illuminating” kind possible. He argues that illustrators of classics like Carroll’s have the special duty of “confounding people’s expectations,” as readers are already well familiar with the stories and long “to be given a different slant to a familiar narrative.” I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of these rare editions — here’s a taste of Lord’s unparalleled genius:

If you’re able to track one down, do treat yourself to a copy of Lord’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There — it’s absolutely gorgeous. Complement it with other visual takes on Alice by Leonard Weisgard (1949), Salvador Dalí (1969), Ralph Steadman (1973), and Yayoi Kusama (2012).

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10 JANUARY, 2014

Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman: A 1973 Gem

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Down the rabbit hole of creative magic, one truly mad hatter at a time.

In the century and a half since Lewis Carroll met little Alice Liddell and imagined around her his Alice in Wonderland, the beloved tale has inspired a wealth of stunning artwork, ranging from John Tenniel’s original illustrations to Leonard Weisgard’s mid-century masterpieces to Salvador Dalí’s little-known heliogravures to Robert Sabuda’s pop-up magic. But among the most singular and weirdly wonderful is the 1973 gem Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman (public library; Abe Books). Barely in his mid-thirties at the time, the beloved British cartoonist — best-known today for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and his unmistakable inkblot dog drawings — brings to Carroll’s classic the perfect kind of semi-sensical visual genius, blending the irreverent with the sublime.

(Because, you know, it’s not a tea party until somebody flips the bird.)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman is an absolute treat in its entirety. Wash it down with The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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