Our valiant editorial intern, Sean Mackey, suggested this month that in honor of April Fools’ Day we recommend a few humorous books. He had this to say himself:
Humor is becoming more and more specific for different audiences, where a reader who laughs at I Am America, And So Can You might not find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies funny. Two classics that have remained fresh for centuries, despite this audience segmentation, are Candide—Voltaire’s condensed epic tale bashing optimism—and Don Quixote—Cervantes’s satire on chivalry, knighthood, and what it means to fully “embrace” literature.
Sean’s absolutely right that it’s hard pulling off lowest-common-denominator humor these days, especially in a book—but you don’t have to go quite all the way back to Voltaire and Cervantes to find funny writing that everyone can enjoy.
The example that immediately jumps to mind is Douglas Adams’s oeuvre, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its many sequels, to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and even his quirky non-novel project, The Meaning of Liff—a “dictionary” that bears a passing resemblance, in intent if not execution, to another classic humor book: Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. (One personal favorite from Bierce: “Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”)
Adams has plenty of company, too, in today’s contemporary humor writers: Jasper Fforde, for example, who’s most famous for The Eyre Affair and its sequels, and Tom Holt, a British novelist writing very much in an Adamsesque vein. (His most recent is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages.)
There’s a fuzzy line, of course, between all-out trying-to-be-funny books, and more literary books that happen to have funny components. Jincy Willett is one author who probably falls more on the latter side, most notably in Jenny & the Jaws of Life—though anyone in an MFA program may appreciate The Writing Class just as much if not more. I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t also mention Aimee Bender here, though in my experience her work—Willful Creatures, for example—is more of an acquired taste. (And speaking of acquired tastes, if you don’t laugh at the opening sections of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, you’re probably not alive.)
If you want to get really high-level about it, there are also some writers who arguably aren’t “funny” at all, at least not on the surface, but at which you nevertheless can’t help but laugh. I’m thinking here of David Foster Wallace—not a favorite of mine, but I can at least appreciate what he’s going for—or of specific books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which takes place during a trip up an escalator, or Kafka’s The Castle. Follow K. to the end of that story, and you have to laugh if you don’t want to cry.
[A note from Akshay: I have to introduce one of my favorite comic writers, Flann O’Brien, who we somehow missed in our St. Patrick’s post. O’Brien recently received a boost when one of his books, The Third Policeman, showed up on an episode of Lost. You can start with At Swim-Two-Birds—one of the weirdest, wildest, and funniest books in English—and then pretty much read anything else. He is a magician. Also, this isn't a novel, but no student of the language can be without “English As She Is Spoke,” which we read aloud with some friends during a long car ride. This is not recommended, as it results in some very unfocused driving.]
One final caveat: humor’s more subjective than even “serious” literature, and there may be books in the list that you think are hopelessly dull, or books not in it that you’re shocked we could overlook. If that’s the case, don’t just sit there fuming—tell us about it in the comments! We always appreciate new reading suggestions.
And now, to end with some truly sophisticated humor:
Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?