ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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Comedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And yet, a good joke or a funny book can last for decades. At least that's what Julia Stuart will tell you. Her favorite book has been making readers laugh for over a century. It's "Three Men in a Boat." And she recommends it for our series You Must Read This.
JULIA STUART: If I said I was going to recommend to you the funniest novel ever written, I imagine you'd come over all suspicious. After all, what would I know about making you laugh? I, too, ignored Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat" when my husband pressed it into my hands insisting it was hilarious. I had more important things on my mind, like lunch. Over the following weeks, he would approach, asking whether I had got to the bit about the cheeses. There are only so many times a wife can hear that question. So wishing to keep a grip on sanity, I read it.
There comes a time in every marriage, often after decades, when a husband is finally right. This was his moment. The plot, like the novel, is decidedly small. Three Victorian gentlemen and a dog go on a boating trip on the Thames. Er, that's it. But it is their misfortunes along the way, as well as the gloriously random anecdotes and modern humor, which make this book a comedy classic: It hasn't been out of print since 1889. The impetus for the trip is that the narrator, J, reads through a medical book only to discover that he is suffering from every conceivable ailment known to man apart from, that is, housemaid's knee.
He and his two equally hale friends declare they need a rest and a change of scenery. You don't have to wait long to get to the bit about the cheeses. They are ripe enough to knock a man over at 200 yards and clear a train carriage. Eventually, they are buried on a beach, their powerful odor attracting consumptives for years. There are other memorable moments, such as J's observations about fraudulent weather forecasts. But who wants to be foretold the weather, he asks. It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.
A little further on, he recalls a time when he was in a picturesque graveyard. Such was its loveliness, he forgave all his friends and relatives for their wickedness, but when an old man startled him out of his reverie, J threatened to slay him. And it would be remiss of me not to mention the most famous attempt in literature to open a tin of pineapple. I'd warn against reading this book in public: You may get arrested for breach of the peace. I will be a little stunned if you didn't love it. Only a whiff of particularly strong cheese would revive me.
SIEGEL: Julia Stuart is the author of "The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise." You can comment on her essay at our website. Go to npr.org/books. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.