“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
—Alice, upon first reading “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass
Inspired nonsense has held me in its spell for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a house full of books, I spent the most time with the ones that were seriously silly. I graduated from Dr. Seuss to The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, a well-thumbed Dover paperback adorned with Lear’s own absurd pen-and-ink drawings, so you could see just what he meant by the dolomphious duck and her runcible spoon. And I dove deep into The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner’s illuminating exposition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, its margins bursting with side notes that made the curious main text even curiouser.
My parents, enlightened children of the ’60s, also had John Lennon’s In His Own Write on the shelf, and though it didn’t make much of an impression at the time, I recognized a kindred spirit. Lennon too must have grown up cherishing the surreal, imagistic language of Lear and Carroll. But his greatest work of nonsense was not on our bookshelves, of course. It was over in the record cabinet, on the raucously colorful Magical Mystery Tour LP: “I Am the Walrus,” the final track of side one.
A musical childhood memory: The turntable on our Heathkit stereo spins, and I hear Lennon’s electric piano wobbling between two notes. The strings enter forebodingly. Ringo’s drums kick in. And then Lennon, continuing the two-note wobble with his thin voice, delivers that recital of deceptively simple words, with “I,” “you,” “he,” “me,” and “we” all coming together. I got that right away, or thought I did. At least it was easier to grab onto, at age 7 or 8, than mouthfuls like crabalocker fishwife or semolina pilchard.
Read more at The Atlantic.