Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reading 'The Annotated Gulliver's Travels'

     I recently re-read Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels -- or rather Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, as I discovered was the book's original title.
     Maybe it's just read, not re-read. I'm certain I read an abridged children's version, and I'd probably read at least excerpts for a college English lit class. I was certainly familiar enough with the plot to know he traveled to more lands than that of the tiny Lilliputians and the gigantic Brodingnagians.
     One reason for my sudden interest was the recent Jack Black film version, which confined itself to Lilliput and added steampunk elements.With Black as a thoroughly modern Gulliver, Swift's satire was almost completely absent.
     Personally, I wish future adaptations would ignore the land of the tiny (it's been done to death) completely in favor of the latter three voyages (virtually ignored, except for the family friendly TV miniseries starring Ted Danson). In particular I would like to see a film devoted to the floating city of Laputa and its philosopher scientists.(A anime film takes the concept and the title, but little else.)

Image from Asimov's Reviews

     The only edition I had in the house was Isaac Asimov's The Annotated Gulliver's Travels, which I thought would be no problem since I'm a huge fan of Asimov. Still, it took me a long time to finish Gulliver this way, and I don't think I'd recommend it for a first read.
     Annotated books, if you're not familiar with the term, are usually classic books that are old enough that some of the language, contemporary history or other context may be unfamiliar to the modern reader. Some annotated books are oversized, with notes in the margin and lots of artwork from past editions of the book, while others simply put the explanatory notes at the bottom of the page, as with footnotes.
     Even when these facts aren't necessary to enjoy the book, it sometimes increases one's appreciation. For instance, one of the earliest annotated book I ever read was of selected Sherlock Holmes stories, with entries on such things as the difference between a hansom cab and a dog cart -- not vital information, but interesting.
     Among the other annotated volumes in my collection are the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (helpful for translating his many foreign language quotations), Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
     The problem is partly because Gulliver is older than many of the other books, with archaic language, spelling and capitalization (apparently it wasn't always confined to proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences).
     Swift apparently didn't like to use quotation marks either, or decided it was wrong to have Gulliver remember conversations verbatim after months or years had passed. That much text without dialogue per se was draining.
     And the printing was alternately too faint or too heavy, I think because it was a photocopy of an original text that wasn't in the most pristine of conditions.
     Mainly, the annotations just slowed me down. Asimov took every opportunity to explain who Swift was satirizing, or how carefully Swift was using science or abusing science in his calculations. While these were interesting, they were also distracting and time-consuming. I would have found most more enjoyable in a separate essay, read after the fact.
     Finally, the large size of the book made it uncomfortable to read unless sitting at a table.
     That said, I'm glad I read or re-read it, and Asimov did an excellent job of putting the book in context. The book also contains a good biographical introduction about Swift.
     From now on, though, I don't think I'll read an annotated book until I've read an unadorned version first.

     The Annotated Gulliver's Travels is long out of print, but Amazon.com, among others, lists dealers who sell new and used copies for from $13 to $60, as well as a different $2 annotated edition for the Kindle (no doubt of the footnotes variety).


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