Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons from L'Engle, part 1

One of the most influential books on my childhood was definitely A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I need only count the number of times a day I find myself thinking about the characters, the plot, the friend I grew close to due to our shared interest in L'Engle's Time Quartet, and various quotes from the book. Perhaps with the exception of Harry Potter (and perhaps even without!), no book has ever been so important to me. Certainly not in the same way.

A Wrinkle in Time influences how I read even today. Science fiction space travels? Dimensions? Time, space, shifts and moves... All of my understanding - all of my imagining - stems from one "children's" book. When I read nonfiction about dimensions and theories of the shape of the universe, it's L'Engle's world that comes to mind. L'Engle's was not the first sci-fi book I read, but it was the first to make me wonder how much of the book's content was actually true. Few books today inspire me so.

There is one scene in A Wrinkle in Time that I remember most vividly. It is not my favorite scene, it is not the most dramatic, and it's definitely not the best written, but it's the most interesting two pages I think I've ever read. The kids - Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace - are receiving an explanation of the "tesseract". I won't spoil the surrounding scene (which, in addition to the quote below is curiously fascinating) for those who haven't read this excellent book (I  encourage you, though, to run out and read it immediately!), but ultimately this is an explanation of plausible space travel in L'Engle's world.
"You see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who's right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across." Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together. "Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "he would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel".
As a child, I found these lines to be interesting. Cool, even, with the little drawings of hands bringing the skirt together. With time, though, the scene seemed to grow more and more. Today it stands in my mind as clearly as if I read it daily. The description following this scene, where the children are asked "What is the first dimension?" leading through to the fifth is uniquely L'Engle - though science discusses various similar topics on occasion, I have found that dimensions are always defined in my mind word for word as L'Engle described them. When reading Flatland (I have been slowly, slowly, slowly reading that small book, every month or so taking in a little alongside my other reads. Eventually I will finish it. Quite nice, actually.), my imagination kept showing me three children and three women discussing dimensions. The children are lines. The women are cubes.


  1. I too loved the Time Quartet growing up. I never read any of L'Engle's other work but these were Major Childhood Books for me. And I totally remember this scene :)

  2. I loved that book so much, but I didn't read it until I was in my 30s! How ridiculous is that. I just wasn't interested as a kid, I think because it was my parents who wanted me to read it, and I was a very contrarian child. :-) My loss!


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