Clif Cleaveland, MD
20 December 2007
Journalist and longtime Saturday Review editor, Norman Cousins, wrote years ago of the healing effects of laughter. In Head First: the Biology of Hope he outlined a strategy of laughter as a vital component for his success in overcoming a complex illness. Although out-of-print, our Bicentennial Library has copies of his book. We know from subsequent research that laughter and optimism initiate chemical changes that bolster our immune systems and, thereby, our ability to fight many diseases.
I thought of Cousins' memoir recently when I looked at the stack of books given to a friend who had undergone surgery for cancer. History, biography, theology-these were the topics. Humor was missing. I began to construct in my mind a library of humor for our bedside tables when we face illness. I solicited nominees of in-print, laugh-out-loud books from family and friends.
Tops was The Natural Man by Ed McClanahan (Gnomon Press 1993). Set in Needmore, Kentucky in the 1950s, the novel hilariously surveys the timeless travails of adolescence followed by the narrator's return to a radically changed hometown decades later. Oodles Ockerman, the heroine, has one of the great names of modern fiction.
The Best of Ogden Nash, edited by his daughter, Linell Nash Smith (Ivan R. Dee, 2007) presents 500 of the comic poet's light verses. "The Baby: A bit of talcum, Is always walcum." Open this book to any page and find guaranteed laughter.
In 1981, at the first Festival of Southern Literature in Chattanooga, writer Walker Percy spoke of the determined campaign waged by the mother of John Kenneth Toole to assure the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces (LSU Press 1980 and 2000). The author had died by his own hand. Mrs. Toole insisted that Percy read the first page of a manuscript that she had tirelessly shopped for a publisher. To pacify the lady, Percy consented and was immediately hooked. The novel features foot-long hot dog salesman Ignatius J. Reilly in a New Orleans setting far removed from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. For sustained and improbable laughs the narrative is unequaled.
Erma Bombeck wrote a three-times weekly newspaper column for years prior to her death from kidney failure in 1996. Her one-liners are legendary: "Insanity is hereditary; you can get it from your kids." "The only reason I would take up jogging is so I could hear heavy breathing again." Most of her columns were collected in books. If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? is an example that is still in print. Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Updated Version (W.W. Norton 2005) is similarly based upon newspaper columns by Judith Martin. Although Emily Post would probably swoon, Martin serves up etiquette with great humor.
Clyde Edgerton has given us one comic treasure after another. My favorite is Where Trouble Sleeps (Ballentine Books 1997) in which the 1950s residents of Listre, North Carolina cope with the arrival of a mysterious newcomer in "his almost new, stolen Buick Eight." Listre is centered at a blinker light where the town's most memorable event-a collision between a mule and a truck-happened years earlier. In a single page that features a map of "Hunter's Grove-2000," Edgerton tells us what has happened to so many of the cherished landmarks of our youth.
Ferrol Sams first novel, Run With the Horsemen (Penguin 1984) presents Porter Osborne, Jr. in his boyhood in rural Georgia of the 1930s. This novel is best read while sitting on the floor to avoid painful falls triggered by unbridled laughter.
David Lodge's Small World (Penguin 1995) is a fine send-up of academic and literary pretensions. A sequel to the equally funny Changing Places, the novel is a globe-circling mystery, romance, and study of mistaken identities and inflated egos. Campuses never look the same.
Among the many reasons for perusing Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, is the comic masterpiece, The Miller's Tale. This fourteenth century classic reminds us that humorous writing is rooted in our culture.
This brief sampler is drawn from a much longer list. Sadly, some comic masterpieces such as Malcolm Bradbury's History Man and Erma Bombeck's The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank are no longer in print. Libraries and used book stores keep them alive.
Send me your nominees for inclusion in a future column.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org