Book review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: 150th Anniversary Edition
Lewis Carroll
Illustrated by Salvador Dalí
Edited by Mark Burstein
Princeton University Press, 2015

Recently Princeton University Press kindly sent me a review copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, recently republished in a beautiful 150th anniversary edition. You are probably familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; but you may not know that in 1969, Salvador Dalí was commissioned to produce illustrations for an edition of it: you can see the stunning results here. (Yes, Salvador Dalí is the guy with the melting clocks; and yes, there is a melting clock in one of his Alice illustrations, specifically the illustration for the tea-party (below), which is quite appropriate in context.) Not many were printed, however, and today those editions are super-valuable (think: tens of thousands of dollars).

So it’s really exciting that PUP has been able to issue a new edition with Dalí’s illustrations. There is also a fascinating introduction written by Mark Burstein, a Lewis Carroll scholar, and Thomas Banchoff, a mathematician who developed a friendship with Salvador Dalí. Dalí is famous for his surrealism, but perhaps less widely known is the deep inspiration he apparently drew from mathematics.

On the other hand, the introduction does not spend as much time discussing the mathematics behind the text itself. Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was of course a mathematics tutor at Oxford; but recently it has come to light that many aspects of the Alice story may be specifically poking fun at certain mathematical developments of Dodgson’s day—such as abstract algebra, projective geometry, and the theory of quaternions—which he saw as dangerously abstract, bordering on nonsensical. I think in hindsight we can mostly agree to disagree with Dodgson (who was rather mathematically conservative even for his day), but it does provide some fascinating insight into the mathematical landscape of the time. For more on this, see Melanie Bayley’s 2009 New Scientist article , or Keith Devlin’s summary.

I am not sure I ever actually read the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before now; I suppose I was familiar with it mostly through the Disney version. I was missing out though. The text is delightfully, even uncomfortably, absurd, much more so than the movie! It’s definitely one of those books that everyone should read at least once in their life—at the very least so that you will know what everyone else is talking about—and I’m glad that I now have this beautiful edition on my shelf for my children to someday enjoy as well.

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About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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2 Responses to Book review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  1. Elissa says:

    I loved this book when I read it for my Children’s Lit class in college. It was always one of my favorite Disney movies, but the books is so delightfully weirder! I’m excited to see this illustrated version sometime in the future!

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