On The Reading Shelf

How Alice in Wonderland Saved My Life

It was the spring of 1971, and I was close to failing high school geometry.

I had started the class armed with ruler, compass, number two pencils, plenty of notebook paper, and enthusiasm. The nun who taught the class was young, personable, and fun. I did just fine until Spring rolled around. On nice days, we headed outside to sit on the grass under a budding tree while she explained the latest proof and drew on notebook paper to illustrate her point. Everyone loved it, including me.

Imagine it for a second. The sun is shining, a breeze is gently rustling the new green leaves, Sr. Mary Mary is holding forth on Euclid in all his glory. This is what is going through my head ……Euclid….blah…… blah……blah….oooh look at that big spider …..hypotenuse….blah…blah…..blah…..this grass is tickling my legs…….. blah……….blah…..therefore we can say that………..did that spider just crawl up my leg?……….everyone got that?      Um, what?

I was lost.

Near the end of the semester, desperate not to have to go through this again, I asked for an extra credit project and, given a choice of several, I chose to do a paper on the logic in Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician and logician with strong opinions on the subject. Math and logic references are frequently found in his works, as in this exchange from Alice in Wonderland:

`I couldn’t afford to learn it.’ said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. `I only took the regular course.’

`What was that?’ inquired Alice.

`Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied; `and then the different branches of Arithmetic– Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’

`I never heard of “Uglification,”‘ Alice ventured to say. `What is it?’

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. `What! Never heard of uglifying!’ it exclaimed. `You know what to beautify is, I suppose?’

`Yes,’ said Alice doubtfully: `it means–to–make–anything– prettier.’

`Well, then,’ the Gryphon went on, `if you don’t know what to uglify is, you ARE a simpleton.’

I’d never read Alice before that class, and I fell in love with the book for all its outright craziness and convoluted logic.  I loved Alice for being curious about it all.

“Curioser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for a moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Maybe the story fit right in with my teenage brain trying to make sense out of a world that sometimes seemed nonsensical. The illustrations by John Tenniel were perfect companions to the text and will forever be what I think of when I envision Alice in Wonderland—a little crazy with a hint of terror lurking at the edges.

alice-and-cards

I hope you’ll be tempted to open Alice and enjoy. There’s a wealth of information online about the math and logic problems in Carroll’s works if you want to be curious yourself.

By the way, I passed geometry class. Thanks, Alice.

There is another connection with Alice and that will be in my new line of literary jewelry.  Stay tuned for updates on that project coming soon.

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