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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
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 email@example.com