Looking in the Wrong Place

Because of my interest in comedy and cartooning I always check out the Humour shelves in a bookstore, just to see what new gems might be lurking amongst the dozens of gimmick books. You know the kind—those throwaways designed to be purchased as gifts but never actually read. I’ve come up with a few ideas for them myself over the years, only to have them rejected by publishers and then appear in uncannily similar form in the shops a year or two later. But am I bitter? Nooooo. I’m just saving up these experiences for my Little Bitty Book of Bitter Rejections. (It’s been done, actually, and more than once. When it comes to gimmicky books there are few original ideas, which is the more likely reason my proposals never got anywhere.)

I’ve been looking closely at those shelves lately, because I’ve wanted to see how well the best humour book I’ve read in years is doing. After Jane gave it to me and I fell in love with it I expected to see dozens of copies in Waterstone’s, with a big display touting it as the funniest book ever (which it probably isn’t, but that’s what you have to say to sell books). But no, there was nada, zilch, bupkis. (©1983 The Crazy Book of American Slang.)

The book in question is Wrongboy's History of Earth by William Bishop-Stephens, subtitled An Inaccurate History of Evolution—a brilliantly skew-wiff view of science and nature told through the medium of sloppily typewritten pages and goofy cartoons drawn in biro. Even as a physical object, the book is wonderful: it reminds me of the home-made books I used to create as a kid using Nan’s old typewriter and a biro of my own. The contents are even better, full of dinosaurs, tapirs, newts, elephants, mice, and a qualified scientist. The style is, I suppose, what some would call Pythonesque or Goonish, but belongs to a long tradition of English eccentricity in comedy prose. It struck me more as a cross between 1066 and All That and How to Be Topp, two of my favourite books as a kid.

Which might explain why I couldn’t find it in the Humour section. I should have remembered that Walker Books publish only children’s books, which is what this is. No doubt the extreme wrongness of Wrongboy’s history will scandalise some parents and educators, but Nigel Molesworth never did my speling any harm, and the half-right history in 1066 and All That probably did more to fuel my interest in real history than anything at school. Who knows how many great scientists Wrongboy will spawn? (Now there’s an interesting thesis: comic wrongness as a spur to learning. There’s a paper in that.)

Bishop-Stephens has a blog that doesn’t really indicate what the book is like (although it looks good in its own right), but if you’re keen to sample the book itself, the publisher’s site does have a sample chapter. It’s not the same as holding it in your hands, though, so get down to the Children’s Books section—n.b., not the Humour section—and drop a fiver on the real thing.

27 July 2006 · Books

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