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About this blog: This blog is a place for conversation about books. I post reviews of what I'm reading--lots of contemporary fiction, but also classics and the occasional work of narrative nonfiction. I am always looking for new books to read, so ...  (More)

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Three Centuries of Humor Anthologies

Uploaded: Aug 31, 2014
I'm teaching a class in American humor writing this semester, and the first decision I had to make was where to start, chronologically. Most observers believe that American humor as we know it started with Mark Twain. Sure, there were other writers publishing humor before Twain, but only Twain's is still funny. So we're starting with Twain.

But what Twain would I have the students read? In 1888 Twain published Mark Twain's Library of Humor, a 600-page anthology of his best short pieces along with dozens more by his contemporaries. Lucky me, Modern Library reissued the book as a $17.00 paperback in the "Modern Library Humor and Wit" series curated by Steve Martin. I'm always conscious of the prices my students pay for books, especially for English classes, where there are usually alternatives to the $200 hardback glossy textbrick. With a few keystrokes, then, I took care of the 19th century. Thank you, Mark Twain, and thank you, Modern Library.

For the 20th century, I chose an anthology of humor pieces from The New Yorker. Most of us are aware that The New Yorker publishes a humorous "Shouts and Murmurs" essay in every issue, but I was surprised to learn that the magazine was founded, in 1925, as a humor-only publication. No surprise then that many of its most famous early staff writers, people like James Thurber, E.B. White, and Dorothy Parker, are remembered as humorists as well as fiction writers, aphorists, and authors of grammar handbooks. To date The New Yorker has published two anthologies of humor; I chose the second, Disquiet, Please! I should note here that I am not requiring my students to read every piece in these anthologies, but selections chosen because they demonstrate a particular form, style, or topic. The great thing about the New Yorker anthologies is the long history of the magazine. For a single class meeting, with a single $17.00 textbook, I can assign personal essays by Parker, Updike, and David Sedaris. Because all three essays were published in the same periodical, with the same stylistic and formal constraints, I can show students how a certain approach to humor has changed over the years--or how it varies by author.

Now we're in the twenty-first century, and believe it or not, there are already humor anthologies documenting the last 14 years. The Best of McSweeney's Internet Tendency is a smallish volume comprised of essays originally published on the McSweeney's website, which has become a hotspot for hipster humorists and aspiring TV writers. The first line of the introduction, by the site's current editor, Chris Monks, gives the flavor of the McSweeney's brand of wit:

Back in 1998, the internet was young and wild and free. Along with listservs, pornography, and listservs dedicated to pornography, there was a website that ran all its articles in the same font and within abnormally narrow margins. This site was called McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

For me, this volume was a no-brainer. Most of my undergraduate students were in elementary school in 1998, and some weren't even there yet. To them, the New Yorker volume hints of ancient history--and never mind Twain's anthology. Also, the McSweeney's book is just plain funny. Like headlines from the Onion, the title of a McSweeney's piece often says it all. My students' assigned reading includes selections such as "I'm Comic Sans, Asshole" by Mike Lacher; "The Magic 8-Ball Amended by My Mother for My Middle School Years" by Kate Hahn; and "After a Thorough Battery of Tests We Can Now Recommend 'The Newspaper' as the Best E-Reader on the Market" by John Flowers. People sometimes accuse The New Yorker of printing unfunny pieces by famous people, but there's none of that in McSweeney's. There are a few big (or biggish) names in the table of contents, but for the most part the pieces have been included only because they work. An added bonus is that the pieces are freely available online. I've told students they can read them that way if they want to save twenty bucks, but I also remind them that they may be unable to access "FAQ: The 'Snake Fight' Portion of Your Thesis Defense" by Luke Burns in an electrical storm. (And it goes without saying that no one should have to fight a snake without an FAQ.)
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