Posted April 18th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
Selling itself as How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics, author John Pollack's labor of love for English's least-favorite form of humor comes out swinging. Pollack makes the case that puns are appreciated by the well-adjusted, that they were largely revered throughout the greater part of human civilization, and that an incidental side-effect of changing fashions in philosophy could be the only reason they are currently in such a low state. But more than anything, his goal is to show readers that puns are necessary.
When Pollack comes out swinging, he swings wildly. In putting forth this thesis, Pollack runs the gamut from personal anecdote to cranial physiology to linguistic history, with each page prone to diverge from the fuzzy boundaries of its starting topic. Even in defining the various types of puns, the borders aren't terribly clear; because puns fall mostly but not entirely under the umbrella of humor, precision on the topic is elusive. At times the book wanders into more general dissertations on how the brain perceives humor, or on non-pun linguistic concepts such as chiasmus, and it feels partially irrelevant to puns themselves. Add to the fact that each point must meet reader expectation by providing a few puns, which themselves might require a story and additional historical context, and the text can take a very meandering path following through its analysis.
Perhaps for these very reasons, The Pun Also Rises is decidedly more accessible than academic. Though it is drier in tone than I would have expected from a book about humor, it achieves its goal as something to be read for pleasure rather than reference. The challenge to describe humor without sucking the fun out of it is a difficult one, but Pollack manages well enough for the most part.
The other major hurdle is limiting the book's scope. Pollack sometimes struggles to achieve the grand scope of its premise within the short span it allows for any given topic. Typically, a single example of a pun will bear the burden to prove that any such historical figure, time period, or culture nurtured a deep love of puns. It can be difficult while reading to discern if this is the effect of the author's style, or of insufficient evidence to make any given subject more than a spectacle of curiosity. After all, how many puns could make it into the annals of history and survive hundreds of years later?
The result is a book that is best read in many sittings, consuming one or two oddities of the pun's history and then closing the book for another time.
There's a kitchen-sink strategy at work in this argument for the necessity of the pun, and it can be difficult to find the core of Pollack's argument beyond a tidal wave of pun-related science and history. As someone who was a fan of puns to begin with—the reason I read the book in the first place—it's hard to gauge the effectiveness of the strategy. Specifically, the book doesn't really deliver on the cause-and-effect promise of its subtitle. Readers interested in learning how the pun revolutionized language will instead learn how changes in language resulted in the propagation of puns; those looking to see where the pun changed history will rather be educated in how the pun fared throughout its changing tides.
Despite the fact that the book stands without any tales of history's course changing on the telling of a pun (I was hoping to find some gem equal to the fart that ended King Apries' Egyptian rule) the accounts of the pun's history are fascinating. Like the great secret wars we like to imagine have occurred between the Priori of Sion and the Opus Dei, or Knights Templar and Assassins, Pollack draws a line in the sand and spins tales of battles throughout history between those who enjoy puns and those who do not.
Seeing great figures of American history—such as Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain—weigh in on the debate, and seeing which side they fell, is a rude little bit of pleasure. I found myself hungrily reading through accounts of stuff-shirts angrily denouncing the pun, and the witty trolls of the past replying with as many puns as they could muster.
Outside of English culture, Pollack hits upon what might be more important than the necessity of puns: the inevitability of them. He describes how any language built on the arrangement of various sounds must have puns is unavoidable side-effects. The immense loss in translation inherent to wordplay during these segments is amended by how interesting it is to see the myriad ways that confusion in language can result in puns. In Sanskrit, for instance, a section of text can be wildly misinterpreted merely by punctuation. In Mandarin, the non-phonetic alphabet can result in audible puns that fly completely under the radar in the written word.
China's "Grass Mud Horse" (which uses completely different symbols yet sounds identical to the phrase "fuck your mother" when spoken aloud) is one of Pollack's best-landed punches. As a gesture of defiance in the face of censorship, it makes a powerful case for the necessity of puns. Stretching plausible-deniability to its limits, puns allow people to say what they cannot, and it comes as no coincidence that they thrive in more repressive cultures and situations. It is this point that has stayed with me after reading The Pun Also Rises. And by this rubric, I would have to judge that Pollack succeeded in his goal to show how puns are necessary.
When I told my father that I would be interviewing a World Pun Champion (you can listen to the interview here) he asked if I was going to tell his favorite pun to Pollack during the interview. I did not, mostly due to the length of the pun (which according to Pollack, qualifies it as a "shaggy dog story," although I have heard other definitions of the term). I instead relayed a shorter shaggy dog story, which Pollack said he would relay to his father. I wasn't expecting such a response, but it made sense to me. Pollack's story of the pun is one of a joke passed down by oral tradition, which faltered in the face of advancements in the written word. But clearly, the generational bond of the pun still runs strong, and based on Pollack's insight, that bond will likely keep puns around as long as people communicate with words.
When I finished reading it, I gifted my copy of the book to my dad.
The Pun Also Rises is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats. The copy reviewed was a paperback provided by publisher Penguin Group.
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