Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Best Books Are Humorous

I've been on an admittedly self-indulgent kick lately, waxing philosophical about what makes for the best books. I write these posts as a reader, writer and editor, but I freely acknowledge that they remain my opinions, and I also readily admit that it's been important to me that each entry in the series prominently feature the letter H.

So far I've suggested that the best books are hard to read: they aren't poorly written or needlessly arcane, but they contain ideas that make us uncomfortable by ourselves, and so they are best read in community. I've also suggested that the best books are humble, in that they do not pretend to offer the last word on their subject matter, nor do their authors claim any authority beyond that which is immediately apparent to the reader. I have two Hs left, although I've forgotten one of them. So for this post I'll go with the H I remember: the best books are humorous.

I don't mean that the best books are joke books. In my humble opinion, most joke books are hard to read simply because they are (a) horrible and (b) not funny. Rather, I think the best books carry within their writing a sense of humor that is born out of the author's humility and extrapolated out into something more universally true. The stories these writers tell aren't necessarily fantastical absurdist escapism, although some of them may well be. But they are funny, because we recognize in them a bit of ourselves, a bit of our parents or our children, a bit of our most favorite and least favorite people.

Even painful subjects can be treated with some humor, but only in the best books can they thus be treated well. Such writers recognize that we don't cease to be human in the wake of tragedy or loss or otherwise difficult circumstances; we continue to feel the range of emotions common to the human condition. That includes humor, because even when we're sad some things will strike us as simply laughable.

I'd argue that the Bible can be counted among the best books at least in part because of its savvy use of humor. The first laugh in the Bible is recorded in the book of Genesis, when old and childless Sarah overhears God promising her husband a son. She laughed out of bitterness, denying it to God's face when he called her on it. But the last laugh was on her, when soon enough she found herself groaning through childbirth and bearing a son, whom she named, appropriately enough, Isaac, or "Laughter." It's a perfect story, and it's just a scene. Plenty more where that came from.

The best books are not merely humorous, of course, but I'd argue that a humorless book--whether a novel or a book of poems or a book of nonfiction or a book of holy scriptures--is not telling the reader the whole truth.

1 comment:

Bob/Sir Pent said...

I agree.
My favorite is The Big Book of Toilet Humor.
You can find it at a lot of truck-stops in Wisconsin!