Versify #5 by Pamela Burger
Review of The World is Round
A few months ago Harper Collins brought back into print Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round for a 75th anniversary edition. First published in 1939, The World is Round was intended as a work of children’s literature. It is, basically, about a little girl named Rose (who is a rose is a rose) and her dog Love, and there is some mention of her cousin Willie and his lion Billy. Rose has a lot of existentialist angst, and she very concerned about the Big Picture. She asks questions like “If the world is round would a lion fall off?”
Stein gave specific instructions for it to be published on pink paper (for Rose), with text in blue ink (for Rose’s favorite color). Illustrator Clement Hurd, most famous for his work in Goodnight Moon, provided the drawings. The original book is quite beautiful, but the reissue is marred by a sentimental introduction and and overly lengthy conclusion, written by Clement Hurd’s son and wife respectively. Both essays give context and history for the book and provide brief meditations on the significance of this work, but in so doing they mar the simplicity of Stein and Hurd’s original piece. In other words, in trying to explain how the book came into being, they distract from the work itself.
The World is Round is hardly a kid’s book. True, the central figure is a child, and Rose is beset with the anxieties children and adults alike share: she wonders who she is, and why she is, and where the meaning of her existence comes from. What makes her her? She frets, “Would she still be Rose if her name were not Rose?” The simply phrased question is the kind of thing one finds in the best of children’s literature: the language is simple enough for a child, but the question is one for philosophers.
In fact, the language reminds me the way my niece Sylvie would patter on when she was about three or four, when she was overtired or working herself up into a state. “I was talking to the floor.” She once told me when she’d said something inappropriate. “I can talk to the floor because the floor is just the floor. I can talk to it.” Stein couldn’t have said it better.
And yet, I can’t imagine any child reading The World is Round in its entirety. A one-page chapter, maybe, and even then who knows how much they would be willing to go along with it. As much as I love reading Stein, it is never an easy undertaking, and I often can read only two or three pages at a time before I have to move on. So I was intrigued when I saw the HarperCollins was also releasing an audiobook version of The World is Round , narrated by Kate Mulgrew.
The audiobook is only two hours long, and I thought that by listening to it, I could remove some of the difficulty of following paragraphs filled with tautologies and repetition and other readerly obstacles. I often find myself downloading audiobooks for things I would have difficulty reading without giving up on, like novels that are plot-driven but lacking in quality prose, or books I have to read for work but which I’m not excited about. I like to listen to books while performing physical tasks that don’t require all my brain power, like cooking or cleaning or driving. It’s harder to put down an audiobook than a physical book, especially if it is the only thing to pay attention to while doing something a little tedious. Also, I just like to be read to.
If you, too, like being read to, I highly recommend this audiobook, although, unfortunately, this format doesn’t solve the problem of Limited Stein Endurance. I could only listen to about twenty minutes or so at a time, but during those twenty minutes I was completely captivated. As the words went by, I was able to take them in without ruminating too much on their meaning, the way one might when lingering over the page. Mulgrew’s voice sounds mature, which at first I thought a strange choice for the story of a six-year-old child, but she find a perfect balance with the words. She emotes when it is appropriate, but is never hysterical in a way the lines might encourage. She modulates the speed of the words to encourage the language’s natural flow without hurrying over more intriguing phrases. The downside to the audiobook is the lack of lovely illustrations, but it’s a worthy trade-off to be able to listen to the rhythms of Stein’s sentences, especially if you have a long day of cooking, cleaning, or driving ahead of you.
Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.