Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Musings: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

Almost 30 years ago, Chris Van Allsburg (of Jumanji fame) came out with a book entitled The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.  It was a collection of 14 drawings, each with a tantalizing title and an intriguing caption.  And that's all- no stories attached.  There was an interesting back story told about these stories, about a mysterious man named Harris Burdick who dropped the pictures off, promised more of them and the accompanying stories, and then disappeared, never to be seen again.  And now, fourteen brilliant authors have collaborated to each create a story around the pictures, using their titles and the given captions as additional inspiration.

The contributing authors are all-stars:  Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, Stephen King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire and more.  The introduction (quite witty) is by Lemony Snicket.  Chris Van Allsburg contributes a story, too.  And the inspiration for the stories?  Excellent.  The pictures are beautifully evocative, and when you combine them with the titles and the captions, it's fabulous fun to think of all the stories that might accompany them, what the characters are doing and what happens at that exact moment.

That, perhaps, is why this collection falls a little flat.  Some of the stories, like Chris Van Allsburg's own, Kate DiCamillo's and Louis Sachar's, are lovely.  Some have that enticingly creepy overtone that Chris Van Allsburg is so good at- especially Sherman Alexie's.  Some just are... well, not nearly as interesting as the stories that I imagined were waiting to be told.  And it's hard, really, to see a picture, read the caption and then center your imagination around a title, and then be disappointed in the story that is actually presented to you.  In this way, the collection will never really be brilliant to anyone who reads it because each story has to stand up to your own vivid imagination, and if your imagination- however vague the story in your head may be- trumps the author's, then you are just left with a feeling of disappointment.

When I think about it more deeply, I almost find it a shame that these pictures now have concrete stories associated with them.  I love the romance of a vanished author whose work has been lost, the world left with only these fourteen clues as to his promise and potential to take us on trips to faraway, fantastical destinations.  Setting these pictures to words, even the words of some of our greatest authors, limits the magic they can create and forces our own imaginations into boxes not of our own making.  So I'd say to get the original version of this book, that gives you just the illustrations and the captions and the titles, and let your imagination create its own vivid stories and characters and possibilities around them, rather than letting these authors lead you down their imagined paths.

Note:  This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.


  1. I don't know what to think of this book. On the one hand, it is so something I want to read. On the other, it sounds disappointing.

  2. My fifth grade GT teacher brought this book in and had us all write stories inspired by it: I love it! I think I'll stick to the original...I don't really want to lose that magic. :)

  3. I can totally see where this book could be a disappointment after having the stories move from the realm of speculation to concrete stories. I can imagine that just sitting and looking at the pictures probably provided the viewer with tons of ideas and stories that are now limited by what is actually there. I think I agree that I would rather see the pictures without the stories. Very perceptive review, Aarti. I am sorry this book was not what you were hoping it would be.

  4. I am so glad I checked comments from a review this week. I had your tab open but now, dunno where it went. At least I remembered it then :)

    You have been reading such interesting books lately and all so new to me

  5. Anonymous9/15/2011

    Kelly - Haha, I can understand your feelings. I would get the original version :-)

    Eva - Agreed, it wouldn't really be anything like what you would imagine, of course.

    Zibilee - Yes, I think the limiting of your own imagination, when the whole idea of the pictures and captions and titles was to EXPAND it, is a bit of a letdown.

    Blodeuedd - Aw, well I hope some of them are interesting to you :-)

  6. I had received this book from NetGalley but after a couple of stories I set it aside and never got around to picking it up again. I can't actually remember much about the stories that I did read other than that they didn't impress me much. I suspect that if I had the book in paper format I would have made more of an effort to read it, probably flipping through to find stories that appeal to me more. As it was, I was rather disappointed by it

  7. Anonymous9/21/2011

    Sounds like a neat idea, but I think I'd prefer the original too. A little imagination can go a long way.

  8. It's a testament to our inability to let things lie without putting our stamp on it.

    I won't be reading it, I like the idea of lost stories...... but I don't know if I could resist writing one myself.

  9. I recently read The Mysteries of Harris Burdick for the first time to my children. I wanted to share with them a book that is so awesome in its illustrations and an author who trusts readers to come up with the best story for each picture. This new book sounds so disappointing. I'm happy to pass it up.

  10. Anonymous2/26/2012

    I read this book. In a way, the Just Desert one was rather creepy, but it made sense. I mean, what if you were the only true human on earth and the rest of the earth was supposed to bend to you, making you truly in the center of it? I think that it's an interesting concept. You should read this story, if you are not going to read any of the other stories.

    I do agree that the mysteries of the artwork should just be left to imagine, not a concrete story written by a noteworthy author, no matter how prestigious the author is, they should let everyone dream up their own...I thought the images were far more memorable than the stories themselves with the exception of Just Desert.


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.