Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Big One Taken Down

I finally knocked another book off my list: An Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor, Bennett Cerf, ed. (1954).

How did a book like this come to be a “gap” in my reading? Two things: first, I’ve read Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor and E.B. and Katharine White’s Subtreasury of American Humor, both of which have turned me on to writers I hadn’t heard of (or simply ignored) before; second, it was among the books my mom took home from her parent’s house after they died, so I thought it might give some insight into my Grandpa (though, in retrospect, it didn’t look well-read). So, when I saw a copy of the book in a used-book store, I picked it up and never read it and finally put it on the “gaps” list to get around to it.

Nearly 700 pages later, I’m not sure it was a worthwhile gap. Maybe if I hadn’t read the other anthologies first, but as it is, Roy Blount’s anthology made me question Cerf’s chapter on “The South” (the book is subdivided first into regions and then into genres) and the Whites’ anthology had already introduced me to the better writers in the collection.

Benchley, Twain, and Perelman are still the cream of the crop for written humor pieces as far as I’m concerned. I love Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is excerpted here (as it was in the Whites’ book). The nicest surprise was an excerpt from Donald Moffat’s A Villa in Brittany (which I’ve already ordered from ABE books), mostly because of the way he translates the French to English. For example, when a car is about to get a ticket:

What is it that it has, Mr. the Agent? She is to me, the carriage.

Still makes me snicker.

And, for good measure, some Benchley:

People lie in bed and send out to the wine-shops for the native drink, which is known as wheero. All that is necessary to do with this drink is to place it in an open saucer on the window sill and inhale deeply from across the room. In about eight seconds the top of the inhaler’s head rises slowly and in a dignified manner until it reaches the ceiling where it floats, bumping gently up and down. The teeth then drop out and arrange themselves on the floor to spell “Portage High School, 1930,” the eyes roll upward and backward, and a strange odor of burning rubber fills the room. This is followed by an unaccountable feeling of intense lassitude.


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