To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
by Gertrude Stein
Reviewed by Heller McAlpin
Literary wags love to point out the blunders of short-sighted editors of yore who, failing to recognize genius, took a pass on such later-acknowledged masterpieces as James Joyce's Ulysses, Dr. Seuss' And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. What we hear less about are the initially -- and perhaps deservedly -- rejected manuscripts that later ride into print on the coattails of their author's renown. Gertrude Stein's To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays falls squarely into this group.
Stein wrote To Do in 1940 after the success of her first children's book, The World is Round (1938). Following a year of rejections, it found a willing publisher in 1942, but the project was tabled during the war. In 1957, Yale University Press published a text-only version in its seventh volume of Stein's unpublished writings. Now, more than 70 years after Stein wrote it, it has taken To Do off its to-do list by producing the first illustrated edition.
Thanks in large part to Giselle Potter's whimsical and wondrous illustrations, but also to Yale's exquisite book design, To Do is a beautiful volume to behold. But even with the boost of Porter's fabulous zebra-striped landscape for the letter Z and typewriters strolling along an allee of cauliflowers on the H page, To Do is more intriguing literary artifact than delightful read. As Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale's Beinecke Library, notes in his illuminating introduction, "children are not the core audience for this book." He cites as hurdles the text's "challenging linguistic exercises" and "recurrent sense of menace" -- though in fact the stories are no grimmer than Grimm and no gorier than Gorey. Young acknowledges that adult readers, too, may find the abstract text demanding. He suggests reading the book aloud, and, "If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don't."
To complain that Stein -- the woman best known for her pronouncement that "a rose is a rose is a rose" -- is repetitive is akin to griping that the pope is Catholic. That said, one quickly understands why the long-winded To Do had difficulty finding a publisher. Although there is wit and whimsy and an absurdist sensibility that's a precursor to Maira Kalman's work, it's buried in dense pages of run-on prose. For each letter of the alphabet, Stein calls up four names -- often based on real-life friends -- for which she spins circular tales filled with internal rhymes about mutable birthdays and fortunes: "This is the sad story of Leslie-Lily./Lily who always found everything hilly./Leslie's little Lily's last birthday."
There are riches: passages about war, about writer's block, about multiple births and about a self-immolating giant rabbit. There's even a passage that expresses our impatience: "And Mr. House said nothing more, because he was not a bore and he would have been of course he would have been if he had said anything more./More More More./Shut oh shut the door."
My advice: Sample a few pages at a time -- no more -- or read it from cover to cover and snore.