The Geekly Reader: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Geek Culture


When somebody like Neil Gaiman makes a remark about a book being “probably the best book in the world,” I tend to take notice. Now, obviously, there are always lots of blurbs about some movie or book or game being “the best in the world” but most of those blurbs do not come from Neil Gaiman. I’d like to think that he reserves that description for very special occasions (preferably, just the one), and that’s how he describes James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, an old book from 1950 which was reprinted in 2008 with Marc Simont’s original illustrations.

I’d read about The 13 Clocks some time ago and wrote it down on my list of books to look for, and then promptly forgot about it until I came across it at the wonderful little Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas. I thought it would make a nice bedtime story for my six-year-old, who has been requesting more chapter books than picture books for bedtime.

I haven’t read a whole lot of James Thurber, but I did read The Wonderful O several years ago which, incidentally, was also illustrated by Marc Simont, the artist for The 13 Clocks. Both books are filled with rhyme and rhythm, although they’re not poetry through and through—a character will say something, and you’ll notice that it rhymes, but then just as quickly switch back to prose. It makes for great reading out loud, and I really enjoyed reading this one to my daughter.

The story of The 13 Clocks is sort of a fairy-tale-ish one, with a Prince in disguise, an evil Duke with his Princess niece, an extraordinary character called the Golux, and a terrifying “blob of glup” called a Todal. Oh, and there’s a woman who weeps jewels, an invisible spy, and “something very much like nothing anyone had seen before.” And, of course, as in a fairy tale, the good guys win, the Prince rescues the Princess, and the evil Duke gets what he deserves; but the true joy of the story is in the telling, and finding out how it happens. It’s not a lengthy book—only eight chapters, just about the right length for reading at bedtime. My daughter absolutely loved it, even if (as I suspect) she didn’t really understand some of what was going on. The language is flowery and whimsical, and Thurber is fond of throwing in words that aren’t real but sound like they might be.

Do I think the book is “the best in the world”? Well, no, but I’m not the sort of person who makes such sweeping pronouncements. I do think it’s an excellent tale well-told, unlike much of what you’ve seen, and I’ll enjoy reading it out loud to my kids again.

Both The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O (which is also silly and quite fun) are available on Amazon.

Wired: A story you’ll love to read out loud; not too long so even little kids can enjoy it.

Tired: Might not be the “best book in the world” but it’s certainly not bad.

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