To get to the heart of it, A Nonsense Alphabet is not as brilliant as most of Edward Lear’s work. It resembles a zine, cheap and quickly constructed. The pictures are rough, fast sketches, less lively than his limericks or pseudo biology and botany. The comedy isn’t at its peak, the nonsense isn’t at it’s peak. Not bad stuff, per se, just not as particularly sharp as his other work. So why do I include it here among the best of his work? Simple story starting with a happenstance purchase at a thrift store.
Perhaps because it is a paperback, monotone, colorless little book, I picked it out as promisingly distinct– we are all always searching for the next gem among the stones. I leafed through it and realized it wasn’t exactly a gem, but the quick and zine-like quality still drew me to it. There’s something about this style among all the colorful flashing covers that feels honest. And… accessible somehow.
So, I took it home, looked him up, and started a love affair with Edward Lear. Sadly, something in my childhood went awry, and until then, I had never heard of him. Now that I’ve read more of him, A Nonsense Alphabet remains firmly among my favorites. There’s still something that feels honest about it. Especially in contrast to the brilliantly creepy and frenetic quality of his other work. Like he wasn’t trying very hard for anything, simply musing, lost in a calm and simple moment of creation.
Letters written by Lear to his acquaintances betray a distinct nervousness in presenting himself to the world. And knowing what an outcast Lear felt himself to be, it’s nice to imagine that this book was a work he wrote without fear, he wrote maybe even just for himself, as an unpolluted moment of meditation. For most famous authors, we have letters published posthumously that allow a little glimpse into the author at some personal and reflective rest. Published posthumously, perhaps we can see A Nonsense Alphabet as something similar, a glimpse of the man at peace. And personally, I want to imagine Lear relaxed and calm. So, I recommend this little book. And if I haven’t sold you, think of it at its fundamental level: it’s a creepy ABC book, if only because the drawings are decidedly awkward and distorted. Creepy ABC books will always be intriguing (The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Dangerous Alphabet, Alphabet for Joanna…). That tried and true formula of innocent childishness and something distinctly not childish… like Lear himself.
Speaking of abecedarian books, check out this website (though admittedly all about buying rather than the sanctioned art of appreciation. We can just appreciate them from a distance…):
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