Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.
When I was a kid, I loved to read. Since I had no job or social obligations and a bedtime of 8:30 p.m. (which was half an hour later than most of my friends), I was able to peruse a fair amount of books when I wasn’t busy scarfing down Twinkies and playing a game of my own invention called “Throw the Stick Over the Fence.” (I’ll let you work out what the objective was.)
Most of the books I used to read were about courage, or love, or the meaning of friendship. And then there was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is about the futile search for meaning in a chaotic, unknowable void.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad I read it. Lewis Carroll’s beloved nonsense narrative taught me a lot about imagination, being different, and thinking outside the box, all of which were extremely meaningful life lessons for someone who liked to wear a witch costume to school on days that weren’t Halloween. Really, it’s a great book. I guess I just didn’t expect to find myself lying awake at night and wondering, “OK, BUT WHEN IS AN ANTHROPOMORPHIC CATERPILLAR GOING TO APPEAR AND ASK ME TO JUSTIFY MY EXISTENCE?”
Alice in Wonderland forced me to think critically. Sometimes too critically. Here is every existential crisis I was forced to undergo as a result.
Existential crisis #1: Who am I?
Once when I was 5 years old, I had a full-blown existential crisis at school and my mom had to come pick me up.
You see, our teacher used to send us out to recess in small groups so as to stagger the surge of hyper children running amok in the hallways. She would say things like, “If you have blond hair, you can go outside,” and then “If you have brown hair, you can go outside,” on and on until every student had been released.
Well, one day she did eye color, and somewhere in there I realized I didn’t know what color my eyes were. I know how stupid that sounds, but when did you realize what color your eyes were? When did you realize eyes had the capacity to have color? I realized it right then and there, and I panicked. If I didn’t know what color my eyes were, did I even know who I was? What else didn’t I know about myself? It occurred to me that this was how Alice felt when the Caterpillar asked her who she is, and Alice replied, “I'm afraid I can't explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
I could have asked another kid about my eyes, I suppose, but the classroom was emptying quickly and suddenly it was just me and the teacher and THEN it was just me, the teacher, and the desk I was hiding under. She asked me what was wrong, and since “I AM BEING CRUSHED UNDER THE WEIGHT OF AN IDENTITY CRISIS; HOW CAN I BECOME MY AUTHENTIC SELF IF I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT COLOR MY ARE” was a concept too cerebral for me to put into words at the tender age of 5, I cried until my mom came instead.
My eyes are green, by the way. I know that now.
Existential crisis #2: Time is relative.
I remember the exact moment time made sense to me. I was in the first grade, and Britney Spears had just released Baby One More Time, and one day in class it just clicked for me that the big hand was the minute hand and the little hand was the hour hand. (Today everything’s digital, though, so analog clocks are about as useless as my ability to reel off the original 150 Pokemon, which I spent DAYS committing to memory, so I guess that’s just information I have now.)
Most of the kids in my class had already figured it out, but I was a little late to the time-telling party because Alice had asked “How long is forever?” and the White Rabbit had replied “Sometimes, just one second.”
I struggled with how this could be (how could a second last longer than a second?) until I asked my parents. My mom said it was because time is relative. My dad said, “You know when we run errands and I tell you that if you behave, we'll get McDonald's afterward, so those few hours at Home Depot seem to last a lot longer? It’s like that.”
Existential crisis #3: What constitutes a person? Is it the body, or the mind?
I could’ve made it YEARS without having this thought. I could’ve been at least 18 or 19 before I had occasion to wonder what constitutes personhood.
As it stands, I was about 7 or 8 when I raised my hand and asked my poor teacher what part of me was me. Like, If I got my head cut off, was “I” technically the head? Was my body no longer me? What was it?
These were questions I had because of this bit in Alice:
The other students in my class became curious, too. Instead of being the kid who told everyone the truth about Santa, I was the kid who told everyone the truth about the duality of self. Needless to say, we never got back to adding and subtracting.
Existential crisis #4: What does it all mean?
As a kid, I wasn’t concerned with the meaning of life so much as I was concerned with the meaning of the riddle on the back of my Lucky Charms box because if I solved it, I would get a free color-changing A Bug’s Life spoon. I had my hands full with Legos and Capri Suns; I didn’t have time to be wondering about the universe and my place in it.
Until (are you sensing a pattern here?) I read Alice in Wonderland. In Wonderland, nothing makes sense and everyone’s just fine with that. All logic goes out the window. Pigeons talk, clocks don’t tell time, and riddles have no answers. Ravens are like writing desks for whatever reason, and we all just have to deal with it.
I think I thought this was just funny the first few times, but on my fourth reading I started to wonder what was the meaning of anything. Why did I have to go to school every day? What was the point of learning about the 50 states? Was doing math problems just a Sisyphean exercise in futility?
I brought this up with my mom, but she didn’t seem to think existential ennui was a good enough reason not to go to school.
Existential crisis #5: Human memory is fallible.
You know the part where Alice can’t remember the words to a poem? I used to think about that every time I had to stand in front of the class and give a presentation about Joan of Arc or the Dust Bowl. I still think about it every time I go to Subway and have to keep everything (the cheese, the meat, what bread I want) straight in my head. My palms get sweaty, my mouth goes dry, all the words would exit my brain, and suddenly I feel like Alice being called upon to recite a poem by a very rude caterpillar.
I thought about this a lot as a little kid, too. Back when people had to remember phone numbers, my mom would make me memorize emergency contact information just in case I ever got kidnapped by a man who was kind enough to give me one phone call. I mostly failed in this endeavor, probably because she wasn’t asking me to memorize all the Pokemon or the lyrics to Britney Spears songs I was definitely too young to be listening to.
Existential crisis #6: Is what we perceive reality or just a construct of our minds?
At least once a day I wonder if my life is some sort of bonkers, off-the-wall fever dream, and it’s because of Alice in Wonderland. Obviously when I was a kid, I didn’t just silently contemplate this; I asked my babysitter, Jessica.
We were watching Disney Channel one day when I turned to her and randomly demanded to know if life was all a dream, which is exactly what every babysitter wants to hear when they’re just trying to score a quick and painless 20 bucks after school.
She said, “There are seven billion people in the world. They all have their own lives, just like you. Do you really think you could’ve made them all up? Do you think you’re imaginative enough to do that?”
I said, “Yes.”
Which, you know, wow. What an absolute power move.
The lesson here, I guess, is that none of these things matter as long as you have THAT kind of confidence. You know, that “small child, big dreams” confidence. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may have forced me to wrestle with moral quandaries philosophers have been debating since the dawn of time, but it also made me realize there’s nothing wrong with asking questions, with looking at things differently, with not knowing where you’re going in life just yet. It made me realize I was a creative, inquisitive, and unique… just like Alice.