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Hey, Who Replaced My Favorite Adventure Yarn With This Zoology Textbook?

February 26, 2009 at 10:17 pm

One of my favorite and most cherished books as a kid was an illustrated copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I read and re-read that thing as only kids can do. It eventually suffered the fate of all cherished childhood books: the spine fell apart. I think my parents eventually got rid of it after they got tired of me leaving a trail of book pages everywhere I went. But I grew up with fond memories of that story, and fond memories of reading it.

I guess I was feeling nostalgic recently. So, wishing to revisit those pleasant memories, I bought a new copy for enjoyment during my daily bus commute. And that's how I discovered, to my everlasting chagrin and embarrassment, that I had never actually read the novel.

I don't know what I read as a kid, but it sure wasn't 20,000 Leagues.

Not the whole thing, anyway. It must have been a severely abridged version. (Which, now that I think back on it, would explain that one morning at the breakfast table when dad seemed so incredulous when I told him I could easily read the book in a day.) In fact, the simple illustrations (which I only vaguely remember) would suggest that it was the super-abridged version for children. How humbling.

Yeah. Looking on it with the jaded eyes of an adult, I'm pretty sure the original Verne didn't have Captain Nemo declaring (in French, of course), "I am a zillionaire!" Which is a shame, because that was always one of my favorite lines from the book. What 10-year-old boy wouldn't want to be a zillionaire pirate living in his secret high-tech supersubmarine?

Frankly, I prefer the nonexistent and misremembered version of the novel from my childhood. The real 20,000 Leagues has many charms, and of course all the cool stuff I (kind of) remembered -- Atlantis, giant squid, shipwrecks, whirlpools -- but it's interspersed with interminable passages about the zoology and taxonomy of ocean life.

And I do mean interminable.

Conseil, loyal sidekick to our narrator, Professor Arronax, has made the study of taxonomic classification his life's work. (When he's not fawning all over the good Monsieur le Professeur Arronax, of course.) So between Conseil and Arronax -- himself an even greater expert on all things related to the sea -- every new location brings with it new fish, which leads to sometimes entire pages of Conseil and Arronax rattling off not just the species of fish, but also where it lies in the entire taxonomic tree. (Which, thanks to Mr. Fox in 7th grade, I still remember: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.) And that's not all. Oh, no. Because after rattling that off, Professor Arronax often takes it upon himself to tutor Conseil by explaining how these fish might differ from, say, others of a related sub-genus. And so on and so forth for basically everything they encounter on their voyage, whether it's animal, vegetable, or mineral. And Verne never restricts himself to one example when seven will suffice.

It's gratuitous. It's zoology porn. It doesn't do any favors to the pacing. It also makes for an extremely information-dense adventure story.

Yes. I read  20,000 Leagues as a straight-up adventure story. I'm lowbrow. So sue me.

What's fascinating to me is how this kind of storytelling was perfectly acceptable -- and hugely popular, apparently -- in the late 19th century. This was, after all, one of the novels that made Jules Verne a superstar in his day. It's not like he didn't have an editor. (Some scholars credit Verne's  editor with improving his works.) So it seems people really wanted to hear about the wonders of the ocean in excruciating detail.

Verne was able to stay abreast of the developments in many branches of science and technology, and he wrote during a time when science was exciting and romantic. When man's mastery of technology was sure to usher in a Golden Age for humanity. Yep, that utopian golden age was just around the corner. (Although apparently Verne himself wasn't quite as optimistic as his stories would suggest.) He depicts a world where the Nautilus could exist, if only some enterprising Nemo would put the time, money, and effort into it. And the novel is a travelogue, too, taking Arronax to exotic locales all over the world. That must have made the novel all the more exciting to readers in the late 19th century. Most of whom, I'd wager, never had the opportunity to leave their home countries.

(It's interesting, too, that Verne's narrator refers to Darwin (On the Origin of Species was published about 10 years before Verne started 20,000 Leagues) during a discussion of geological time. And, in the same passage, he explicitly states that the "days" of Creation as referred to in the Bible simply cannot be days as we think of them: the geology of the sea floor refutes it.)

Maybe the failing is mine, as a modern reader. If Verne had brought this novel to our local writers' group, I know exactly what I would have told him:

Jules. You're on to something terrific here. For real. You totally turned the unicorn into a robot when Nemo takes Arronax to the ruins of Atlantis. Great stuff. But. Dude, seriously. We don't need seven freaking pages about every species of remora living in the Indian Ocean. It's killing the pacing. Instead, I suggest spending some of that space on Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, because that's where your story is, man! As a casual reader looking for a fun story I really don't care that much about the subtle taxonomic differences between different varieties of sea turtles. I care about the CRAZY GENIUS PIRATE WHO BUILT HIS OWN SUBMARINE BECAUSE HE HATES PEOPLE THAT MUCH.

And I suspect I wouldn't have been alone. Does that mean we're impatient philistines? Or that times have changed?

You know, I also have fond memories of  Journey to the Center of the Earth. But now I'm thinking I should hold off on rereading that one.

This is me, never going home.


S.C. Butler March 1, 2009 at 5:42 pm
I think I read an unabridged version, but now I'm not sure. Maybe mine was only demi-abridged. At any rate, The Mysterious Island is much better. It starts with a balloon escape from Andersonville and Nemo doesn't show up for a long time. The pacing is still lacking, however. They didn't believe in pacing in the nineteenth century.
Ian March 1, 2009 at 11:30 pm
They believed in pacing in the nineteenth century. Insofar as they believed such a thing existed, anyway. They just didn't think it had any place in a novel back then.
rewinder March 2, 2009 at 9:07 am
Myself, it's the movie that makes 20,000 Leagues. I tried to read the original unabridged whilst young and, bleah, all that fish stuff, dang, when's ol' Nemo gonna take out another ship? Saw the movie and yeah, that's the way to tell the story for a young kid. 'Course, Mr. Verne was writing for young kids; he was writing for people who were getting excited about the new scientific discoveries and ideas that were rolling about during that time.
Ty March 4, 2009 at 10:06 pm
I am satisfied that my life's work is now complete. The unicorn into a robot meme is spreading at a viral rate. Soon, all unicorns will be robots, and humanity will have nothing to fear other than the dreaded giant red ball.
Ian March 5, 2009 at 3:20 am

I'm not sure it counts as spreading if it's me repeating the meme. After all, I was there when it started.

But the poignancy of the unicorn/robot switcheroo has an added depth when applied to 20,000 Leagues. At the beginning of the book, Professor Arronax reports that some believe the mysterious creature attacking ships on the open sea is none other than a narwhal-- the unicorn of the sea. But then, of course, he discovers it isn't a narwhal, or even a living being at all, but a giant mechanical contrivance...

That's right. Jules Verne wrote a literalized metaphor about unicorns turning into robots a century before we were born.

Admit it. I just blew your mind, didn't I?

Victor Milán March 5, 2009 at 8:31 pm
Classics Illustrated Comics. That was the version of 20,000 Leagues I knew and loved as a kid. And War of the Worlds? Nobody's ever done a cooler depiction of those Martian tripods. Began a lifelong love affair with Giant Mechanical Striding Death Machines for me, it did.
S.C. Butler March 6, 2009 at 1:31 pm
Ah, Classic Comics. The best version of so many great works of literature. Even Moby Dick was fun!
Ian March 6, 2009 at 4:16 pm

So I've been googling like a crazy thing, trying to figure out if what I read as a kid was Classics Illustrated. I thought for certain that it had to be, but after much Googling, now I'm pretty sure it wasn't (although they sure did 20,000 Leagues, as Vic points out).

So what did I read? My leading hypothesis at the moment is that the entire childhood memory was loaded into my brain somewhere in my mid-20s.

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