Dog Eared

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A New Edition of an Old, Reliable, Witty Book of Quotes

Wit lovers rejoice! There's a new edition (the fifth) of The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. Gyles Brandreth has taken the editorial reins from the late Ned Sherrin, and the new edition fine-tunes what was already an impressive and entertaining reference work.

As with previous editions, this is a collection that is more about wit and wryness than laugh-out-loud humor. There aren't that many lines that will get you kicked out of church for loud bursts of laughter. However, there are oodles of quotes that will make you nod your head knowingly, chuckle to yourself quietly, or say to yourself, "That is so true." This book is brimming with well-said wisdom, like a beautiful line by Stanislaw Lec that applies well to people who resemble sheep or lemmings: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

This is a wide-ranging, reader-friendly book that makes it easy to quickly find quotations about death, mustaches, strangers, newspapers, laughter, computers, enemies, statistics, or any other topic among the hundreds listed. You can also search by author, giving you a good sense of just how heavily some folks are represented: for example, there are 70 quotations for Oscar Wilde, but only 1 for Harold Pinter. This is also a highly flippable book that rewards random fishing expeditions as well as targeted searches.

In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of a book like this is smiling or chortling about a topic you usually don't think of as funny, or think of at all. For me, that topic was boxing. Anyone who likes to eat can appreciate this quote from former heavyweight champion George Foreman: "I want to keep fighting because it is the only thing that keeps me out of the hamburger joints. If I don't fight, I'll eat this planet." Anyone with a less-than-genteel talent — or a taste for irony — should enjoy this statement from Sugar Ray Leonard: "We're all endowed with God-given talents. Mine happens to be hitting people in the head." Who knew the sweet science was comedy gold?

This book also changed my opinion of poet Charles Bukowski, who I considered a self-indulgent drunk whose work had no appeal for anyone older than a college sophomore. Turns out Bukowski had a way with wise sayings, though I may enjoy this one for personal, squalor-centric reasons: "Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually clean kitchen, and 8 times out of 9 I'll show you a man with detestable spiritual qualities." I also enjoy this bit of refreshing cynicism: "There's always somebody about to ruin your day, if not your life." Different readers will no doubt be tickled by different writers and topics. Brandreth has collected a plethora and a half of great zingers and aphorisms.

Speaking of zingers, this book is gradually getting less musty in the comedian department. While there are still plenty of comics who are either dead or ancient — such as Joan Rivers, Henny Youngman, Bob Hope, John Cleese, and my beloved George Carlin — you can also find Chelsea Handler, Eddie Izzard, Demetri Martin, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedberg, and Steven Wright. You can't beat Wright when it comes to well-crafted jokes like the following: "I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast any time.' So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance."

In future editions, I'd like to see this direction pursued more. Masters of the one-liner such as Hedberg, Martin, and Wright deserve as many listings as Woody Allen, Winston Churchill, and Oscar Wilde. Plus, there should be room for other quotable comics such as Sarah Silverman, Emo Phillips, Hannibal Buress, and Jack Handey. In fact, it would be nice to see more quotes from comedians, TV shows, movies, and humor pieces in general. Knights of Columbus, isn't there an Anchorman quotation worth including?

This book will help you while away many an evening (or visit to the little boy or girl's room) while contributing  to your shelfies. Plus, Brandreth has collected a worthy manual on how to say things well and memorably, which are valuable skills in these tweet-happy days. If you absorbed many of these one-liners, then checked out Roy Peter Clark's wonderful How to Write Short, you could be the next Hedberg or Wilde. There's a lot to be learned from authors such as Horace ("A host is like a general: misfortunes often reveal his genius."), David Mamet ("They say the definition of ambivalence is watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Cadillac."), and the ever-prolific anonymous ("Those who believe in telekinesis, raise my hand").

Of course, another pleasure of such a book is it can provide you with an appropriate saying for almost any occasion, including the always vexing question of what to say in the final paragraph of a book review. As Cyril Connolly put it, book reviewing is "The thankless art of drowning other people's kittens." I hope I only gave Brandreth's kittens a good bath, and I urge you to check out these clever cats for yourself.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 22nd 2014, 1:58 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
We can't discuss short, clever quotations without a round of applause for Ashleigh Brilliant. For decades, he filled book after book with his original "Pot Shots", each one no longer than 17 words (his self-imposed rule). Check out his books and other items on his website:

The Happy Quibbler

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