This is the second column in Reading Room, a biweekly collective column on reading and life. The column will go in rounds, with the four contributors each responding to a prompt chosen by the group. The first prompt is What kind of book would you most like to read at this moment? The order of the columnists on this round will be: Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Kamran Javadizadeh and Timothy Aubry.
What I want is a book that will help me concentrate. I am struggling to concentrate, writes a friend after she has failed to finish Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. I cannot focus on my reading, my mother tells me after trying to start Ling Ma’s Severance. But it is very hard right now to concentrate on, say, an eighteenth-century plague journal, or a 21st-century novel about quarantine, and to keep up the delusion that the art we consume ought to bear some similarity to the lives we are living. Concentration is at its most intense when the agitated mind works to bring together disparate things, forging connections where none seem to exist. One of the things all of us are attending to is the pandemic’s unraveling of daily life and the shattering fear of death. The other, for me, is Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I have been reading Alice with my children. We have four editions of it: a gnawed board book called A is for Alice; a Little Golden Book based on the 1951 Disney film; an Usborne graphic novel that simplifies Lewis Carroll’s text and is mostly full of very bright, very angular illustrations; and a MinaLima book with Carroll’s full text and the most elaborately rigged devices I have ever seen, pop-outs and pockets and panels that present themselves with an intricacy and grandeur that easily distracts us from the story. The primer, the Golden Book and the graphic novel are for meal times. (At home, my children will rarely eat unless someone is reading to them, and my older son, who is experimenting with threats, is prone to saying things like, “If you don’t read, then I will kill you.”) The MinaLima is for bedtime. We read a half-chapter a night, but the length cannot capture the ritual, which involves arguing over where we left off the night before, recapping the story to that point, noting crucial distinctions between the book and the movie, running a half-naked caucus race, all before we start.
Reading aloud requires an ethic of active concentration. You know this if, having sneakily checked your phone behind the book, or grown drowsy in the middle of a page, you find yourself being shouted at for slowing down or missing a word. (My parents remind me that, as a child, I used to slap them when they skipped a word, a self-defeating form of punishment, for it gave away my ability to read by myself, and so they stopped reading to me altogether.) Carroll’s prose is especially demanding of my attention. The puns stop me short. The parentheticals are puzzling. (How to speak a parenthetical?) The dialogues require that I create and rapidly switch between distinct voices for the creatures Alice encounters. “You are not saying it right,” my older son complains about my pronunciation of “exactly,” which the haughty caterpillar (all caterpillars are haughty now, whereas before all were merely hungry) enunciates as “exac-it-ically.”
Fearful of discipline, my mind does not wander. This was important to Carroll. While writing his book Pillow Problems, a collection of math exercises and logic games, he explained that if “the mind can be made to concentrate itself on some intellectual subject,” it can “banish those petty troubles and vexations which most people experience, and which—unless the mind be otherwise occupied—will persist in invading the hours of night.” For Carroll, the importance of concentration had nothing to do with the moral or cognitive dangers of distraction. Rather, he believed that there were “mental troubles, much worse than mere worry” that threatened to alter one’s very being. “There are sceptical thoughts, which seem for the moment to uproot the firmest faith: there are blasphemous thoughts, which dart unbidden into the most reverent souls; there are unholy thoughts, which torture with their hateful presence, the fancy that would fain be pure,” he wrote. “Against all these some real mental work is a most helpful ally.” Concentration shut out the voices that challenged your innermost sense of self. Paradoxically, it required turning away from yourself and toward other objects, by building connections between them that could wall off your “soul” from skepticism, blasphemy and fear.
I lie awake at night and concentrate on Alice, on why my children have fixated on this book at this particular moment. Part of it must be that I have told them it “takes place” in Oxford, and now Oxford—or more specifically, the college whose grounds grow into our garden—marks the physical limits of their world. Now that we can no longer move about freely, no longer go to new places to see new things, we are trying to find ways to estrange the places and objects that are already familiar to us. A garden can be a chessboard. A tree can be a knight. A rock can be a mock turtle, and it can sing as badly as my younger son does, croaking and crying off key. The fixity of the body can will the flexibility of the mind. Alice, after all, is asleep, immobile. Her rabbit hole tunnels down into a dream that is self-contained and perfectly adequate. Everything she needs she already has, right here in her head.
If I am still awake at the end of this thought, I turn to my own fixation with the novel. I keep coming back to the fact that Alice’s world is a strangely hostile place. The creatures she meets are, if not indifferent to her presence, then unfriendly, easily offended and physically threatening. Death by beheading is a persistent threat from the Queen of Hearts: a thick, fleshy, jowled tyrant with a supremely personal, and thus passionately misguided, sense of justice. Invisible forces act on Alice’s body in unpredictable ways. Always, she tries to pull herself together though her hands and feet threaten to get away from her, to concentrate herself into “one respectable person” by reasoning with herself gently, carefully. She is at her most logical, her most exacting, in the face of extinction, the possibility that she might dwindle down to nothing. “‘For it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?’ And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.”
The word Carroll uses most frequently to describe Alice’s state of mind is “frightened,” and her fear remains no matter how big or small she gets. Physical annihilation, “going out altogether like a candle,” marks the limits of her thought, the end of both attention and distraction. But the fear of it motivates her concentration, keeps madness at bay. She recites poems, capitals, the times table, attempts to find similarities between things as unlike as a raven and a writing desk. She tries talking sense to the creatures. Until the very end, she is exceedingly polite, generous and dignified, because she is afraid. “Being a child is frightening,” my husband reminds me, and I point out that right now, being an adult is as well. Part of parenting involves converting my own wandering fear into a wondering attention. This is the story of Alice, too, which ends with Alice’s sister imagining Alice grown up, surrounded by children, and telling them the story of Wonderland in a way that wins innocence and play from fear.
On the phone with Sarah one night last week, I told her that I felt more capable of concentrating now—on my writing, on my family—than I had in years. I also felt more concentrated, more firmly tethered to my sense of self. Perhaps all I meant is that after several years of feeling over-obligated, stretched very thin, the limits of my attention had been reset for me. Waking up the next morning, I left the boys with my husband and went to my office to write this. The clock had leapt forward the night before, and I felt like I was running late. But this was nonsense. There was nothing left to be late for. I wrote steadily for four hours until I finished. Then I went home to concentrate on other things.