Humor Books in the News

The Spectator has reposted a review from December 2005 by biographer and literary critic Bevis Hillier of the third edition of Ned Sherrin’s Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. He had some reservations about the earlier editions as being overly inclusive but has largely come around:

…I felt the Humorous Quotations anthology was too lazily compiled. For example, there were and, alas, still are no fewer than 35 quotations from P. J. O’Rourke (born 1947), whom I find wildly unfunny. As someone who relishes Bernard Shaw’s prefaces more than his plays, I feel rather the same about this new edition of Sherrin’s dictionary. It contains his amusing prefaces to the first and second editions and a preface to the new edition. […] They are among the most enjoyable parts of the book. […] Among the welcome newcomers is Nigella Lawson, defending toad in the hole to an American audience: ‘No amphibian is harmed in making this dish.’

As it turns out, there was in fact a fourth edition of Sherrin’s book issued a few years after Hillier’s review.

Although apparently beyond the scope of his assignment from the Spectator, Hillier segues into a review of another and competing book:

That Sherrin’s dictionary has gone into three editions entitles him to say Nah nah ne nah nah to me; but now there arrives a dic of quots which puts his dic in the shade: Funny You Should Say That: Amusing Remarks from Cicero to the Simpsons compiled by Andrew Martin (Penguin, £20). The book has two great merits. First, Martin really has been diligent in tracking down sayings one hasn’t encountered before; and secondly he is absolutely scrupulous in trying to give us their origin, or at least his source. He writes:

“I would like to mention … that this is not one of those books where you’ll read, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’, followed by a breezy ‘Jane Austen’. No, you are told that the quote occurs in chapter one of Pride and Prejudice, and you are given a potted biography of Jane Austen, alongside the 1,300 other authors (I think it is) of the 5,000 quotes in the book.”

Following this, Hillier offers several suggestions of quotes that Martin (and possibly Sherrin) might have included. Among them is this one from Evelyn Waugh:

Evelyn Waugh to Nancy Mitford, 1954: “Have you heard about ‘The Edwardians’ [i.e. Teddy Boys]? They are a gang of proletarian louts who dress like Beaton with braided trousers & velvet collars & murder one another in ‘Youth Centres’ … Beaton is always being stopped now by the police and searched for knuckle-dusters.”

After this, there are several other quotes without an attribution, some of them very good indeed. But I don’t think that they are written by Waugh. One of them reads: “The email of the species is deadlier than the mail.” Maybe Hillier should compile his own volume.

But Hillier isn’t finished with his review. He concludes with a mention and several quotes from two other books:

The funniest book of last year was Simon Hoggart’s send-up of those awful Christmas ‘round robin’ letters that tend to begin ‘Dear All.’ It was called The Cat that Could Open the Fridge, and I thought it would be impossible for him to better it. But his new assault on round robins, The Hamster that Loved Puccini (Atlantic Books, £9.99), is even funnier.

Finally, Sam Leith, the Spectator’s literary editor, has mentioned a book on the website This is The Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur. Leith cites several examples of curmudgeons, including Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis among their number. He then discusses what distinguishes them from other grumpy conservatives, taking issue with a recent application of the term in The American Conservative:

…the curmudgeon is a pessimist, whose grumpy outlook is born of long experience, and of the realisation that what good there is in the world has been hard-won and is perpetually vulnerable to the hare-brained schemes of dreamers, utopians, and idiots of every stripe. Kingsley Amis was much pilloried for his reaction to the expansion of higher education: “More will mean worse,” he wrote in Encounter in July 1960. But as the educational establishment now struggles to keep a lid on spiralling costs and — at least as indicated by grade inflations — declining standards, many will think that there was something in what he said.[…] The curmudgeon is the very praetorian guard of conservatism — not the technocratic, neoliberal sort of Right-wingery that thinks innovation is the answer but the unfashionable, unglamorous sort that thinks, on the whole, that we should — in Belloc’s words — “always keep a-hold of Nurse/ For fear of finding something worse”.

It may that Leith’s own discussion of the The Portable Curmudgeon led him to repost Hillier’s memorable 2005 review. The first Curmudgeon book was  published  in 1987 and has had several sequels. Leith posts on Twitter as @questingvole.

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