The Letter "e," from Shel Silverstein's "Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book."
Most books about the alphabet are geared toward kids; they’re for pre- and early readers who are just beginning to learn about letters, the basic building blocks of language. But the last century has seen the publication of a number of alphabet-related books that appeal to adults too. Some of these books were written with an adult audience in mind, while others transcend their intended youthful audience through their innovative form and content. All of the books on this list contain adult pleasures; they use the alphabetic sequence as a means to reflect on topics as varied as globalization, mortality, modern art, and, of course, language itself. We adults may already know the alphabet, but these books insist that we have been taking it for granted for far too long.
This alphabet book is a playful yet satirical response to the Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition of modernist art in America. In the book, three young triangular creatures called “the Cubies” come face-to-face with what we now recognize as some of the most important works of art and literature of the 20th century through the alphabetic sequence. But the Cubies are not impressed; they gently undercut the artwork and literature at every turn. For example, when encountering Nude Descending a Staircase, the Cubies exclaim: “D is for Duchamp, the Deep-Dyed Deceiver, / Who drawing accordeons [sic] labels them stairs, / With a lady who must have been done in a fever / His model won’t see her, we trust it would grieve her! / Should the stairway collapse, Cubie’s good at repairs.”
Gertrude Stein—herself a target of the Cubies’ derision—wrote this alphabet book in 1940, but it remained unpublished until after her death. To Do is filled with the dense rhymes and repetitions that we find in so many children’s alphabet books, but it is definitely not like other children’s books. It is long, uneven, and unwieldy; it consists of hundreds of short, fantastical narratives featuring hundreds of peculiarly named characters. For example, “Sammy and Sally and Save and Susy. / Sammy had his aunt and his aunt had Sammy and his aunt’s name was Fanny and Fanny had Sammy.” Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas summed up the problem of To Do perfectly, remarking that it was “too old for children and too young for grown-ups.” Yale University Press published a new edition of To Do in 2011, featuring beautiful illustrations by Giselle Potter.
Though this book’s voice resembles that of Silverstein’s beloved children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends, it is definitely raunchier. First published in a slightly different form in Playboy, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ purports to address an imaginary audience of children, while delighting in its own subversiveness. In Uncle Shelby’s world, “G is for Gigolo,” and ”S is for Stanley, a crazed murderer who likes to murder little boys and girls.” Devious and dark, Silverstein announces: “Q is for Quarantine / Isn’t this a big word? /Do you know what it means? / It means— / COME IN KIDS—FREE ICE CREAM.”
This ecstatically gruesome alphabet book tells the stories of the deaths of twenty-six children. Gorey’s pen-and-ink illustrations revel in death as much as his rhyming couplets do: “K is for Kate who was struck with an axe. / L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks. / M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. / N is for Neville who died of ennui.”
Abish’s astounding book was influenced by the Oulipo, the group of French writers and mathematicians who developed and advocated constraint-based writing techniques. In the fifty-two chapters of Alphabetical Africa, Abish takes constraint-based writing to the extreme: every word in the first chapter begins with the letter A (“Ages ago, Alex, Allen, and Alva arrived at Antibes),” while every word in the second chapter begins with A or B, and so on. The middle of the book features two chapters that use every letter, and then, in the chapters after that, Abish begins subtracting letters one-by-one. The constraint has all kinds of strange effects on the story—for example, a narrative “I” suddenly appears in the ninth chapter, but then drops out nine chapters from the end of the book.
This alphabetically ordered collection of poetry has something for everyone—Oulipo-inspired language games, revisions of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon”), and alphabet poems (such as “Jinglejangle”) that, mixing standard English with slang, dialect, nonsense, and noise, beg to be read aloud: “Georgie Porgie gewgaw gherkin jerkin gibber-jabber glad pad gloom & doom goof proof.”
Your Country is Great may be the oddest book of travel poetry out there. Shirinyan composed the book by Googling the phrase “[country] is great” and then arranging the results alphabetically. The outcome is a group of poems that comment on national identity, tourism, and globalization; the arbitrariness of the alphabetic sequencing highlights the differences between what the internet thinks “is great” about various nations. Consider the first lines of three different poems: “The real winner in Austria is great skiing,” “Shark diving in the Bahamas / is great for all levels of divers, “The need for counternarcotics assistance to Colombia / is great.”