Most of the world’s mischief is caused by serious, ambitious people.
Yesterday I received such a vivid response to a James Boswell quote I idly posted to Facebook that I’ve decided it bears further discussion. So take out your pencils and notebooks, boys and girls, you’ll want to take notes. For today I rise to extol the virtues of silliness and sloth.
The Boswell quote, one of my all-time favorites, reads thusly:”To be perpetually talking sense runs out the mind, as perpetually ploughing and taking crops runs out the land. The mind must be manured, and nonsense is very good for the purpose.”
Anyone who has ever worked hard, especially (but not exclusively) at a desk job, can grasp Boswell’s full meaning at a glance. Intense, prolonged concentration — whether writing a novel, brokering an Afghan peace agreement, or jiggering the books at Goldman Sachs — leaves the mind exhausted and in need of relaxation and renewal.
Drugs and/pr alcohol will do the trick, of course, but nonsense is much better for you.
That means a bit of time spent in pursuit of the opposite of seriousness. It occured to me to add sloth to the mix of restorative virtues after I saw a Facebook post by Laura Lippman, the novelist whose genre-bending I’d Know You Anywhere has been nominated for an Edgar Award (in a perfect world, it’d get a National Book Award nod, too).
In response to an outpouring of well-wishing from friends and fans, she posted this status report: “Laura Lippman is overwhelmed by all the kind words here, e-mails, etc. and wishes I could write every single person individually. But I am very lazy.”
Bravo, Laura! Those who love Laura’s books would, in their secret hearts, chain her to a desk, the better to get the next one as soon as possible, but there are laws against that sort of thing. We ought then be grateful for her confession of indolence, for the sooner she manures her mind sufficiently, the sooner she’ll be back at her word processor.
Take your time, Laura. Spread the stuff thoroughly. Don’t miss that acreage down by the creek.
Some correspondents have asked me to suggest sources of high-quality manure, to which I say our literary and entertainment culture is full of fine resources for the purpose. I first came across the Boswell quote, for example, while writing a profile of Dave Barry in 2002. Barry remains an excellent starting point — as funny today as he was 1986, when I read Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to Make a Tiny Person in Only Nine Months With Tools You Probably Have Around the Home.
I’m not one to besmirch another person’s choice of manure — I watch too much Syfy to be smug or superior (at least on this point) — but the general rule of thumb is to seek out silliness that is also smart and well put together. Knock-off nonsense, the cheaply made stuff, tends to enervate and frustrate rather than restore.
Ironically, this means high-quality manure is the product of hard work, but of such contradictions is all wisdom made, so I will say no more about it.
Before moving to a few literary recommendations, let me mention a secret weakness: Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder. It’s the best silly comedy in British TV history (that’s saying a lot, I know!), especially the second season season (1986), in which Atkinson plays a scheming courtier to Queen Elizabeth. Sample dialogue: “Oh, tell me, what is the difference between men and women?” “I can’t conceive, madam.”
But of course the best sources of manure will always be literary. The greatest silly book I’ve ever read, and also the funniest, remains Jerome K. Jerome’s 1885 classic Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog). I’ve also found P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories serve well, and so does Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim may be the funniest (and meanest) British novel since 1950.
American writers I’ve also found reliable: Peter DeVries, Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Dorothy Parker, S.J. Pereleman, Joseph Heller — I can see I’m deficient in female humorists, but I’m sure someone will help me out.
If you believe, as I do, that most of the world’s mischief is perpetrated by serious and ambitious people, then you will join me in calling for more silliness and sloth by adding to my list: Who manures your fields?