Jerome K. Jerome: Humor, Wisdom, and Folly

I picked up two books written by the 19th century humorist Jerome K. Jerome, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The title page of my copy of Idle Thoughts contains a disclaimer printed by the publisher in 2008: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race have changed before allowing them to read this classic work.” I have not encountered another book with a similar warning–though I’ve read many that fall into the same category.

Some of the humor in Idle Thoughts is very dated. In the sections addressing men and women I found myself unable to decide where the line of satire fell (considering the book was a product of its time).

The topics for the chapters are a delightful mix including the weather, being in love, babies, furnished apartments, and dress and deportment. Most chapters meander through a collection of rabbit trail rants. In some cases they are lighthearted and facetious, such as this passage about babies:

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighborhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”

Jerome recommends calling all babies “little angel” (because it’s gender neutral and flattering), claiming the baby resembles the parents regardless of whether or not this is true, and most definitely do not say” “it hasn’t got much hair, has it?”

In the midst of the lightness Jerome pulls out passages like this while discussing memory:

There is no returning on the road of life. The frail bridge of time on which we tread sinks back into eternity at every step we take. The past is gone from us forever. It is gathered in and garnered. It belongs to us no more. No single word can ever be unspoken; no single step retraced. Therefore it beseems us as true knights to prick on bravely, not idly weep because we cannot now recall.

A new life begins for us with every second. Let us go forward joyously to meet it. We must press on whether we will or no, and we shall walk better with our eyes before us than with them ever cast behind.

Three Men in a Boat is the story of a boating excursion on the River Thames. Some parts of this book were tedious to read, but there were glimmers that caught my eye. Here are some excerpts:

The narrator decides he’ll take care of the packing:

I rather pride myself on my packing. Packing is one of those many things that I feel I know more about than any other person living. (It surprises me myself, sometimes, how many of these subjects there are.)

Idleness comes up in this book too:

I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk around with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.

One of the joys of reading is the great diversity in books. Jerome provided a dash of 19th century British humor into my 21st century American life.

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