Dog Eared

Books we love

A Witty, Impressive Quotefest

Everyone likes puppies, cookies, Batman, and humorous quotations. Therefore, the fourth edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, edited by the late Ned Sherrin, should be enjoyed by everyone. This Brit-heavy volume leans closer to the witty than the funny, but it's both a serious reference book and a hall-of-fame bathroom book.

Some people — like that obnoxious saying-sharer we all know on Facebook — seem to find comfort in inspirational quotes, but I take comfort in jokes and one-liners, and this book has brought me a lot of comfort. It reminded me of legendary Chicago writer Mike Royko's response to Rupert Murdoch buying the Chicago Sun-Times: "No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper." It introduced me to a disturbingly truthful observation about marriage by Martin Amis: "After a while, marriage is a sibling relationship — marked by occasional, and rather regrettable, episodes of incest." It entertained me with a bizarre comparison by Robert Runcie: "Being hugged by Diana Rigg is worth three sessions of chemotherapy." It enlightened me with a quote from Ronald Reagan: "You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jelly beans."

Sherrin's accomplishment is impressive, because the territory of "humorous quotations" is enormous, subjective, endless, and did I mention huge? Humorous quotations include jokes, witty statements, unintentionally funny statements, exaggerations, self-contradictions, shocking statements, odd headlines, movie quotes, TV quotes, and plenty else. This collection has a little of all of the above, divided into categories such as Trust and Treachery, Gardens, Censorship, Presidents, Television, and just about every other subject, high and low, big and small. While not every quote will raise a chuckle or guffaw, this is more than made up for by other qualities: this book is a feast of things well and wisely said.

Even the non-laughers are chock full of truth. For example, I was amazed by this 1957 quote from Edward VIII:  "The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children." This quote may give the lie to the idea that spoiling children is some newfangled invention of the 21st century. It might just be in the blood of America to favor children over parents, including parent countries. This book is full of similar treasures.

Along the way, you'll no doubt discover hundreds of quotes for the first time, while enjoying familiar words from the likes of Woody Allen, Samuel Goldwyn, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. While the pleasures far outweigh the puzzlers, some inclusions are inexplicable. For example, there are some famous movie lines that seem out of place, like "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes." That's certainly an immortal line — and important in spreading an idiom — but how is it humorous? Gone With the Wind's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" suffers from the same problem. Or take Gore Vidal's observation that "Reality is something the human race doesn't handle very well." That's true enough, and also obvious, but not clever, witty, or humorous at all. Lines like that seem to have wandered in from another book. Fortunately, there aren't many such head-scratchers.

As for as what should've been included, there should definitely be more comedians. How can you do a humorous quotation book with no George Carlin or Jerry Seinfeld, not to mention dozens of other stand-ups? I'd love to see this book sprinkled with some of the comic wonder of The Comedy Thesaurus, a fantastic collection of comedian quotations that are both witty and funny, almost without exception. However, Sherrin's most egregious omission is Jack Handey, the Saturday Night Live writer (and later, New Yorker essayist) whose Deep Thoughts are a precursor of Twitter humor and the funniest collection of one-liners I've ever seen. Any humorous-quotation collection should devote significant space to the guy who wrote jokes like this: "To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kinda scary. I've wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad."

Gripes aside, this book is a blast. Part of the fun is flipping around, then settling in for a page or two before flipping again. For example, Tony Curtis said "It's like kissing Hitler" in regards to smooching Marilyn Monroe, while Billy Wilder besmirched her with these words: "She has breasts like granite and a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes." Speaking of cheese, that seems to be a prolific subject for humor, though G.K. Chesterson noted, "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." Clifton Fadiman described cheese as "milk's leap toward immortality," while Charles de Gaulle said of France: "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" This is a fantastic book for sampling concise verbal awesomeness while hopping and skipping from Marilyn Monroe to cheese to France and beyond. The topics vary, but the wit is constant.

I'd feel remiss if I didn't end with one of the quotations on critics, which might give a clue what the late Sherrin would think of this review. As Brendan Behan said, "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves." As one of those eunuchs, I want to thank Sherrin for making me a better informed and highly entertained eunuch. This book's earned a spot on my shelf (after a few months by the can, of course).

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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.