Fun Intended: The Pun Also Rises

August 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

Having maintained this blog for five months now, I know how foolhardy it is to try to write seriously about humor, so I was filled with a warm glow of brotherly sympathy while reading John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises.  I feel humor giggles it’s way out of my grasp whenever I try to make too exacting a claim about it, but in this book Pollack does a great job of theorizing on the history, biology, and psychology of puns with a loose but secure tone.

Pollack acknowledges that the pun is derided in our culture—and has some interesting theories as to why—but notes that if it really is the lowest form of humor, it also serves as the foundation of all humor.  One of the book’s strengths is how easily the simple pun lends itself to study; it’s substitution of one meaning for another is mathematical enough to programmed into artificial intelligence and studied in psychological trials, giving Pollack a solid base of evidence to present and extrapolate from.  As a result, when he’s explaining how punning is the very essence of creativity at the end of the book, his claims don’t seem all that unfounded.

While the book’s subtitle, “How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics”, should  make Pollack’s propensity for puns evident, they never obscure his points.  For a former Pun-Off World Champion, he was able to find an admirable balance, using puns to break up scientific evidence and historical accounts every few pages so that the book stayed as quick and effortless feeling as it’s subject.

My complaint about the book, though, is that it was a little too quick and effortless.  It is chock full of information but presented in an anecdotal style, which was pleasant enough for breezy reading on my summer vacation, but frustrating when I tried to delve deeper.  Though full of facts, it is short on details.  For example, he starts the first chapter with what could be an engrossing story about ,”two scholars … arguing fiercely over the accent of a Greek word.”  When the argument turns to deadly duel, we’re meant to understand the power and importance of language—but the point falls short for me with such weak, abstract language.  What scholars?  What word?  I often had trouble at the beginning of new paragraphs guessing whether he was trying to set up evidence or a joke.  (A linguist, a biologist, and a psychologist walk into a bar…)

While I can see the appeal of a streamlined text and understand not everyone has my penchant for detailed academia, Pollack does little to accommodate readers like myself.  For example, when Pollack quotes an account of the above anecdote, he attributes it to “one chronicler of the dispute.”  How is this any less clunky or intrusive than a name?  The endnotes are unmarked in the main text, so finding out who wrote this or any of the other sources he cites involves flipping through the back of the book, looking for the first few words of the sentence you are interested in.

Ultimately, this shallow treatment of the material hurts Pollack’s arguments.  While it made me easy to slide through the points I understood, when I reached sections I disagreed with—such as his discussion of the pre-historical evolution of laughter—I didn’t know how to delve deeper and figure out if I was understanding him fully—and there was absolutely no chance of him changing my mind.

But while the book is frustrating to me now that I’m trying to mine it for future blog posts, it will probably be little but fun to a casually interested reader.  And though it isn’t helping much with the follow through, it has inspired a lot of thought in me, so look forward to a series of post over the next month about puns.

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