Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One man's tears-of-laughter, lie-on-the-floor-gasping-for-breath-funny book may leave another man as cold and unamused as Mount Everest.
We all love humorous writing. It's surprising then, that with the world thrashing about in financial troubles, wars raging, and Madonna threatening to adopt another African child (with or without the father's consent), readers aren't fleeing to the refuge of literary humor. Quite the opposite -- they're wallowing in the dark and dismal. And not even the deliciously scary darkness of writers like Stephen King. Just dark. And dismal.
Take a glance at the New York Times bestseller list for this week. The top five slots are taken up with children suffering from incurable diseases (Handle with Care), wrecked airplanes and missing secretaries (Corsair), mean law firms (The Associate), mean aliens (The Host), and mean serial killers (Run For Your Life).
Where, oh where, has all the humor gone?
Once upon a time, well-written wit was a badge that authors wore with pride. The best writers worked to make you guffaw out loud, or at the very least, smirk. Think of Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Jonathon Swift, Alexander Pope, E.B. White, James Thurber. Humor was sophisticated. No longer.
In order to be a successful humor writer today you need to either: a) only write razor-sharp sarcastic humor that relies on slicing and dicing someone else's reputation and/or belief systems, b) resign yourself to being considered a second-class writer (David Sedaris, NPR poster child, is the only one exempt from this stigma, and even he spends most of his time slicing and dicing someone), or c) write the book only as something to hawk on your highly successful prime-time comedy show.
Humor is out. Dark is the new sophisticated. And that's a real pity. Nothing, short of hosing down Bernie Madoff, even comes close to the cathartic therapy of laughing helplessly at a funny book in such unhappy and uncertain times. Even King Solomon acknowledged the power of humor: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones."
I don't know about you, but I could use a little more medicine and a lot fewer dry bones in my books these days.
If you're having trouble finding a book worth laughing at, cast your eye over this list of 10 funniest books of all time. And feel free to set me straight about my choices in the comments.
The Book Examiner's 10 funniest books of all time (not necessarily in order)
1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
University humor at its spoofalicious best. James Dixon is a not- too-bright medieval history lecturer at a provincial British university. Jim knows his place in the department is in jeopardy, but every move he makes to improve himself in his ridiculously pretentious senior professor's eyes only makes matters worse -- and more hilarious for the reader. The final scene made me laugh out loud for the entire chapter. Please, please people, read this book.
2. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Ms. Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm as a spoof on the ultra-depressing, melodramatic novels of authors like Thomas Hardy. Given my choice, I'd take this spoof over Hardy every time. The story follows the modern young Flora Poste as she goes to live with relatives in the country and encounters -- and sets straight -- every stereotypical 19th century character imaginable. Even if you've never read Mr. Hardy, Cold Comfort Farm is funny; if you have read him, however, you may need to get medical assistance for an excess of mirth.
3. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
It pains me to see that most of Mr. Keillor's popularity stems only from his radio show, "The Prairie Home Companion." Don't get me wrong, the show is great. However, Mr. Keillor's books, particularly his Lake Wobegon ones, are the best things he's ever done. The radio show pales in comparison. Lake Wobegon Days is the first of the bunch and, if you either grew up in the Midwest, grew up as a strict Christian, Catholic, or Lutheran, or grew up with old school parents (or all three), this book will make you laugh like you never have before. The 95 Theses against his parents, included as a huge footnote in the book, is solid gold, one of the funniest things I have ever been priviledged to read.
4. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
This tale of three young men (to say nothing of the dog) travelling up the Thames River despite ancy animals and murderous swans may have been the only remarkable thing Mr. Jerome ever wrote, but it is a humor masterpiece. Three Men in a Boat has influenced generations of humor writers, including Connie Willis, author of one of my favorite books of all time, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was written, in part as a tribute to Mr. Jerome.
5. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
Few authors have managed to be as consistently witty and amusing over as many books as Mr. Pratchett has in his Discworld series. They are all different, and they are all -- and I mean all 37 of them -- hilarious reads. If you've never experienced the Discworld, start with the first two books, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.If you are already a Disc-head but haven't read Making Money yet, take a look at a review of it here.
6. The Queen and I by Sue Townsend
The Queen and I is a sort of alternative history tale: it imagines what life for the Royal family would be like if they were forced out of power and into a lower-class existence living in government housing. I've read this book three times and listened to the audiobook production twice (I highly recommend the Barbara Rosenblat narration; it's one of my 10 favorite audiobooks ever) and still can't wait to laugh over it again. If you have any interest in the Royal family you will get a kick out of Ms. Townsend's rendering of them living life with the little people. And don't think it's all snark either -- Ms. Townsend's ideas as to which Royals would do well in that situation and which wouldn't is part of the humor.
7. A Fine and Pleasant Misery by Patrick F. McManus
If you or any member of your family (most of these will be men of a Certain Age) have experience hunting, fishing, or camping the Old-Fashioned Way (i.e. no bathrooms, no cushy three room tents, no propane stoves, no wussy comforts of any kind) this book is an essential read. Mr. McManus details his encounters with wildlife, fires that won't start, and Sleeping Outdoors Alone with the kind of self-deprecating humor that's hard to resist. If your dad is an outdoorsy type, seriously consider getting him this book. And, if he likes it, there are several others by Mr. McManus written along the same lines.
8. Anything by P.G. Wodehouse
Mr. Wodehouse was nothing short of a literary humor genius. Every book Mr. Wodehouse wrote, particularly the Jeeves and Wooster series, reads like the examples you might find in a How To Write Humor section of a fiction writing instruction manual. His books are spoofy, slapstickish, and as funny now as they were decades ago. If you're interested in embarking on a Wodehouse odyssey, my advice is to begin with the first of the Jeeves and Wooster canon, The Inimitable Jeeves, either in print or in the excellent audiobook production narrated by Jonathon Cecil. You'll be reading Mr. Wodehouse in exalted company: Daniel Radcliffe (The Boy Who Lived) and the late John Updike are among the luminaries who have counted Mr. Wodehouse's works among their favorites.
9. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams
I unabashedly love this series. I read the books and listen to the original radio broadcasts annually. Some people think the books are too spoofy and just plain dumb; I say those people don't know where their towel is. The entire series, particularly the first two books, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe demonstrate humor at its best. O.K., so if you're a science fiction fan they may be a bit more funny to you than to the average reader, but really, they are funny no matter who is reading them, and regardless of how many Pangalactic Gargleblasters you've consumed beforehand. A note to H2G2 Fans: Seen And Another Thing... yet?
10. Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language by Richard Lederer
Technically, this book isn't humor writing since its funniness factor stems, not from Mr. Lederer, but from the written goofs he has collected. Still, you've got to admit that this book makes for some of the funniest reading ever. When I first got my hands on it, I actually had to lie down on the floor I was laughing so hard. Read an excerpt from the book here, at Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock and other astonishing examples of anguished English.