Words to Live By – March 2024, no. 7

Words to Live By - March 2024, no. 7

Each month, we ask a member of faculty to tell us about one book that played an outsized role in making them who they are today. This month, Professor of Humanities Neil Robertson journeys down the rabbit hole in his Words to Live By.

What book have you chosen?

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

When did you first read this book?

It was first read to me, I think, but I fell in love with it as a teenager and especially associate reading it in the home of my great aunt, with whom we spent holidays while I was growing up.

Was it a book that you read quickly or did you take your time reading it?

I have read the Alice books just about every way you can read: quickly, slowly, in fits and starts, with commentaries and analyses, but always with delight.

What was it about the book that first stood out to you?

I think I just love the whimsy of it all. Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson, in what is taken for real life, was a maths don in Oxford in the nineteenth century. These books combine a kind of Victorian story about an adventurous child with a wonderful sense of the playfulness of thoughts and imaginations. The mixture of poetry and prose matches the mixture of nonsense and serious reference to issues and concerns of its time. I think, in a way, it awakened in me the first stirring of a kind of delight in thought that I then discovered more deeply and fully in the Foundation Year Program.

Have you reread this book? If so, did you get something different from it on rereading?

I have reread the Alice books too many times. Most recently, it was the book I recommended for a fundraiser for Halifax Humanities in the lingering days of Covid. The fundraiser proved both utterly enjoyable as we did a readathon of Alice in Wonderland, but also a fundraising success.

 How did this book shape you?

… The Alice books have been lifelong companions that charmed me as a boy, and intrigued me when I started collecting commentaries and guides, books of puzzles and biographies of Lewis Carroll. They were books I read to my daughters and figurines of Alice and the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and others have been put up on Christmas trees through the years. I own a lovely, carved Alice chessboard. I am afraid I am a bit of a fan.

What do you think it is about this book that made such an impact?

As I suggested, there is something about the way thought and imagination are allowed to play with one another with wit and wonder that has enthralled me.

Who do you think should read this book?

Everyone and often.


Banner photo: Photo of the rectory garden at Croft-on-Tees, Yorkshire, Dodgson’s childhood home, taken by Charles Dodgson from publicdomain.org

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