A Rare Exhortation: Thurber’s 13 Clocks is Required Reading


On June 13, 2014, Alexandra Alter called James Thurber‘s The 13 Clocks (Simon & Schuster, 1950) “required reading for human beings.”

Why is that?  What would make someone suggest that this book, now written 65 years ago, is so important?

Alter says, “‘The 13 Clocks is at once a fable, a love story, a ghost story, a revenge tale, and a poem of sorts, that’s simultaneously silly and grim’ (WSJ, June 13, 2014, p. D1)13ClocksCover

The book is only 124 pages long, and contained within it are illustrations by Marc Simont.

As one customer reviewer noted on Amazon.com, the book is a tale written for teenagers and their parents.  Here is the description from the same site:

“The wicked, one-eyed duke of Coffin Castle lives in his cold fortress along with his beautiful, warm niece Saralinda. There are thirteen clocks in the castle that stopped marking time at the same moment. The duke hates time; indeed, he believes he has killed it. The only things he loves are his jewels and, apparently, his niece. There have been many suitors for Saralinda, but all failed to pass the terrible tests the duke set for them. A prince, Zorn of Zorna, disguised as a minstrel, comes to seek Saralinda’s hand.”

Last summer, author Neil Gaiman led a multi-week discussion about this book for the Wall Street Journal Book Club.   One reader asked him about some nuances he discovered when he read the book to his own children.  This is his reply:  “One thing you really only discover when you read this book aloud is the amount of weird and wonderful internal rhymes.  It is a book that in many ways is meant to be read aloud, which is not a way people read these days….I highly recommend that if you have anybody that will sit still long enough, or possibly just a patient dog or hamster, read this book aloud to them.  If you read this book aloud, you will find things in it that you did not know were there” (WSJ, June 13, 2014, p. D6).

How much do you know about James Thurber?   You can find his full biography from the Encyclopedia of World Biography by clicking here.

James Thurber PictureJames Thurber was an American writer and artist. One of the most popular humorists (writers of clever humor) of his time, Thurber celebrated in stories and in cartoons the comic frustrations of eccentric yet ordinary people.  He was born on December 8, 1894, in Columbus, Ohio, to Charles Leander and Mary Agnes Thurber. The family soon moved to Virginia where Charles was employed as a secretary to a congressman. While playing with his older brother, Thurber was permanently blinded in his left eye after being shot with an arrow. Problems with his eyesight would plague Thurber for much of his life. After Charles’s employer lost a reelection campaign, the Thurbers were forced to move back to Ohio. Thurber attended the local public schools and graduated high school with honors in 1913. He went on to attend Ohio State University—though he never took a degree—and worked for some years afterwards in Ohio as a journalist.  Thurber moved to New York City in 1926 and a year later he met writer E. B. White (1899–1985) and was taken onto the staff of the New Yorker magazine. In collaboration with White he produced his first book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929). By 1931 his first cartoons began appearing in the New Yorker. These primitive yet highly stylized characterizations included seals, sea lions, strange tigers, harried men, determined women, and, most of all, dogs. Thurber’s dogs became something like a national comic institution, and they dotted the pages of a whole series of books.  He died in New York City on November 2, 1961 from pneumonia after suffering a stroke.  Read more: http://www.notablebiographies.com/St-Tr/Thurber-James.html#ixzz3UIJWXGKi

I’ve long put away children’s books at home.  But, I am very active in a program entitled Take Time to Read, sponsored by the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.  We have received donations from our ScottishRiteHospitalparticipants at the First Friday Book Synopsis for two consecutive years.  Last year, we raised enough funds to donate 36 children’s books to area schools.

This sounds like a good book for us to take into the schools.  If Gaiman is accurate, whoever reads it needs to practice to get in the proper tones and inflections and make it come alive off the page.  If we do that, at least, it appears many students will pay attention while we read it.

The answer to the question I started with is clear.  It is important because of how we read it aloud to others.

And if listeners do not pay attention to the words with our associated tones and inflections, we can always show them the pictures!

 

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