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It’s not humor, it’s satire. It’s only funny on accident.

Thursday, October 3, 2002

03 OCT 02

When I was 12 I read Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel over and over again for a few months. The protagonist’s father would read and reread Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and used passages from the book to illustrate whatever point he was trying to get across. I’ve never forgotten Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and was pleased and surprised when I ran across Three Men in a Boat twenty years later. I was even more pleased and surprised after I read it; it immediately became one of may favorite books. It’s still in print and is available from various publishers at the huge, soulless chain bookstore near you, or online from your favorite huge, soulless electronic store. If you’re cheap you can download it (and a buttload of other public domain writings) from the Gutenberg Project.

Three Men in a Boat was published in 1889 and is holding up rather well. It’s the story of three young British men, to say nothing of the dog, who after a conversation decrying the stresses of modern life, decide to rent a boat and spend a couple of weeks on the Thames. The trip illustrates how much and how little life has changed over the last century. It’s at turns a travel guide to late 19th Century England, a commentary on the small and annoying problems of modern technology, a farce of class society, and much more. The adventures of "J", George, and William Samuel Harris; to say nothing of Montmorency, could happen to three young men on a trip today. The language is very accessable to modern readers and it’s enviously well written. I steal from it often.

The book is varied and speaks on many levels; there’s a lot to love about it. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy – the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands – the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill – and flew after his prey.

His victim was a large black Tom. I never saw a larger cat, nor a more disreputable-looking cat. It had lost half its tail, one of its ears,and a fairly appreciable proportion of its nose. It was a long, sinewy-looking animal. It had a calm, contented air about it.

Montmorency went for that poor cat at the rate of twenty miles an hour; but the cat did not hurry up – did not seem to have grasped the idea that its life was in danger. It trotted quietly on until its would-be assassin was within a yard of it, and then it turned round and sat down in the middle of the road, and looked at Montmorency with a gentle, inquiring expression, that said:

"Yes! You want me?"

Montmorency does not lack pluck; but there was something about the look of that cat that might have chilled the heart of the boldest dog. He stopped abruptly, and looked back at Tom.

Neither spoke; but the conversation that one could imagine was clearly as follows:-

THE CAT: "Can I do anything for you?"

MONTMORENCY: "No – no, thanks."

THE CAT: "Don’t you mind speaking, if you really want anything, you know."

MONTMORENCY (BACKING DOWN THE HIGH STREET): "Oh, no – not at all – certainly – don’t you trouble. I – I am afraid I’ve made a mistake. I thought I knew you. Sorry I disturbed you."

THE CAT: "Not at all – quite a pleasure. Sure you don’t want anything, now?"

MONTMORENCY (STILL BACKING): "Not at all, thanks – not at all – very kind of you. Good morning."

THE CAT: "Good-morning."

Then the cat rose, and continued his trot; and Montmorency, fitting what he calls his tail carefully into its groove, came back to us, and took up an unimportant position in the rear.

To this day, if you say the word "Cats!" to Montmorency, he will visibly shrink and look up piteously at you, as if to say:

"Please don’t."

Please do read this book.

"Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous."

posted by latiolais at 0800  

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