v29 #5 Wryly Noted — Books About Books

by | Dec 11, 2017 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  John D. Riley  (Against the Grain Contributor and Owner, Gabriel Books)  www.facebook.com/Gabriel-Books

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, Laura Miller, General Editor.  (ISBN:  978-0-316-31638-5 Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers;  New York, 2016.)


What could The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Wizard of Oz, The Divine Comedy, Fahrenheit 451, Beowulf, and Infinite Jest all have in common?

These five titles are part of over one hundred books that make up a new compendium of imagined worlds contained in the publication, Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon Magazine and authored by forty literary experts drawn from colleges and universities in all parts of the world.  Many of the authors have specialties in medieval and ancient history, science fiction and fantasy, and children’s and young adult literature.  The book is beautifully illustrated with art work from the first editions or later exemplary versions, such as Edward Burne-Jones’ tapestry realized by William Morris & Co. for Le Morte D’Arthur or movie posters and cover art for 1984, I, Robot, and Planet of the Apes.

Literary Wonderlands could pass for an entertaining coffee table book, but should instead be considered as a checklist and guide to essential utopian, dystopian and speculative fiction that you have always been meaning to read.  If you have read these books already, whether as a child, teenager, or student, you will find that the essays are concise summaries and refreshing new looks at reading you have previously enjoyed and want to re-live.

I found that the attention to detail in the examinations of the story telling was a great way to jog my memory and bring old classics back to life.  The chronological listing and grouping by era put them in context with their kindred tales.  Among the details I gleaned from this encyclopedic gathering were facts such as:  Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was actually an erudite pun on his real name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, meant to puzzle his fellow Oxford Dons.

And it was good to be reminded that the students in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon attend “the Universities of Unreason, where nothing useful is taught, and any form of machinery is proscribed on the grounds that, if allowed to develop, the machines will take over society.”  I was also glad to have the various levels of society in Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbot spelled out as a satire on Victorian social norms where “…many-sided polygons constitute a kind of aristocracy and isosceles triangles form the working class, while regular quadrilaterals, like the narrator, are solidly middle class…while women, who are lines only, are unable to improve their station.  In addition, women might be mistaken for ‘points’ when seen head on and are required to use separate doors and shout aloud when moving around Flatland, in order to avoid accidentally stabbing their countrymen.”

Another work of fantasy that actually gave rise to a real world political movement is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (one of the bestselling books of all time in the U.S.).  From this utopian novel came the People’s Party which espoused that “…wealth be equally distributed and private property be abolished.  Everyone would receive a college education and life-long care from a benevolent state where the retirement age is forty-five.”  On a more dystopian note, we learn that We by Yevgeny Zamyatin published in 1924 was a direct inspiration for 1984, Brave New World, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.  In We the “One State” is surrounded by a wall where the dictatorial “Benefactor” watches citizens at all times and they live in transparent apartments the better to be monitored.  

I had missed the parallels between Jesus and the Little Prince in Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince, where the “boy with golden hair and a scarf” tells the pilot “…the important thing is what can’t be seen.  And he dies to get back to his rose on asteroid B-612.  The last image in the book shows a desert landscape with a star.  The narrator asks us to let him know if we ever see this landscape, and under that star, a child.  Don’t let him go on being so sad:  Send word immediately that he’s come back.”

Another important quality of Literary Wonderlands is that it introduces us to many foreign examples of the genre.  The book gives equal recognition to works such as Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes by Gerd Mjoen Brantenberg, Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga, The Man with Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, and Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O.

You will find Literary Wonderlands a valuable scholarly look back at familiar books and a fresh look forward to more adventurous reading in the future.  



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