Sunday 3 February 2008

Idle Pleasures

As promised, I started off my Hesperus pile with Jerome K. Jerome's The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and it did not disappoint - in fact, it's gone straight into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. Doesn't get much better here on Stuck-in-a-Book.

I read Three Men in a Boat last year, but deemed it too well-known to get on my list - and it came in at no.10 on reads of 2007. Actually, I'm surprised it wasn't higher - I must have been feeling in an arty mood when I compiled the list. I haven't read many authors who rival Jerome's insouciant good humour and entirely maliceless send-up of everyone around him. The send-up works because the figure of fun he most mocks is himself.

Idle Thoughts, first published in 1886 before he even considered men in b
oats, is arranged as a series of comic essays, each titled 'On ----', be it Babies, Being Hard Up, or Cats and Dogs. I'm going to go all out and say that he might be parodying Montaigne, but having not read any Montaigne, it's a bold claim. What I do know is that these pieces of writing are hilarious - but in the subtle way which the Victorian comics seemed to find so easy. (Cf: Grossmith, George and/or Weedon). Nothing much is said, but it is said very amusingly. Jerome wanders around the topics introduced with anecdotes, musings and wry observations. It's a bit like the higgledy-piggledy nature of Three Men in a Boat, only structured by themed chapters rather than a central thread of plot.

The best thing I can do is quote Jerome - here's his Preface:

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS having observ
ed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere 'idle thoughts' of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading 'the best hundred books', you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

Do go and buy it. I'm rather excited by the 1891 riposte, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl, by 'Jenny Wren', which will be republished in March...


  1. 'This book wouldn't elevate a cow' this was what made me purchase it!

  2. Montaigne, maybe, but the list of great English essayists is pretty thick by the time Jerome wrote. Parodying Hazlitt, Lamb, Johnson, Addison, Steele - more likely.

    I've added the Jerome to my "to read" list - thanks for the rec.


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