This collection of Robert Benchley essays started off gangbusters but faded as it went.
Robert Benchley, for those unfamiliar, was like the Dave Barry of his era. Indeed, Barry cites Benchley as one of his idols and a major influence on his work. Benchley was a humor columnist (and later actor) from the 1920’s through his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1945.
My Ten Years In A Quandary collects many of Benchley’s humorous essays from a variety of sources including the New Yorker and Life. (Fellow humorist and member of the Algonquin Roundtable James Thurber once commented that Benchley’s columns where the only reason anyone ever read Life.) I picked this book up from father’s discard pile over Christmas and initially thought I was in for a real treat. The early essays in the collection are hilarious. Soon, however, my interest began to flag. I’m still trying to determine if this is because the essays dropped in quality as the book continued on or if I simply fatigued of Benchley’s style once I got past the novelty factor. Looking back over the table of contents, I suspect it may be the former.
Benchley is at his best when he is being absurd. Early essays in the book, such as the The Lost Locomotive, The Rope Trick Explained, Stop Those Hiccoughs! and — my personal favorite — Owl Data are all great examples of Benchley at his most ridiculous. The essays border on the surreal. Non-sequitors abound and Benchley seems to be writing less about our world than some fantastically ridiculous alternate reality. As the collection moves forward, however, the essays become less absurd and Benchley’s dry, ironic social commentary comes more to the forefront. These essays are still amusing, but not at the level of the early pieces. I found myself setting the book aside for extended periods of time and in the end it became a book that I picked away at, saving it in reserve for a week where I might find myself falling behind pace in my quest for 52 books in 52 weeks. (And while I am way ahead of pace at this time, I want to stay that way as I have some slower books that I’m looking forward to settling into.)
That having been said, the early essays really are brilliant. I mentioned at the start of this review that Benchley had been a great influence on Dave Barry but Barry is hardly alone. I thought I would end this review with some highlights from Benchley’s column, Did You Know That ____. In selecting these excerpts, it became clear to me that Benchley’s work has, in fact, influenced my own work, both directly and indirectly.
Did you know that:
Ice is really not ice at all, but a vegetable organism which forms on the surface of water to prevent it from freezing solid?
An ordinary hen’s egg is the result of hypnotism?
Mount Washington, of the Presidential Range, is really a depression in the earth’s surface which looks high only because the surrounding country is so much lower?
No one has ever actually seen Brooklyn Bridge? It is merely an action of light waves on the retina of the eye.
The reason why it always says “twenty minutes past eight” on those big watches that hang outside jewelers’ shops is because that is actually the time at the particular moment when you are looking at it??
At the risk of making this review overly long, I can’t resist quoting at length from Owl Data as well:
A graduate student in the Ornithology Department of Cornell University is looking for data on horned owls. He is writing a thesis for his doctorate on “Is the Horned Owl a Friend or an Enemy of the Farmer?” and wants people to send in their experiences.
I do not know so much about the farming end of it, but I can testify that the horned owls in my room are definitely unfriendly. I sometimes wish that I had never let them in.
* * * * *
There are only two of them, and so I don’t suppose that any extensive conclusions can be drawn. They may just be two particularly unfriendly owls by nature. I, too, may not be doing my part. It takes two or three to make a quarrel. Possibly if I were to throw them a smile now and then they would be more chummy.
But I don’t feel like smiling at them. They don’t inspire friendliness. They just sit and look at me all night and sleep all day. I have even tried sleeping during the day myself and going out at night, just to get away from their everlasting scrutiny, but that isn’t a natural way to live. I can’t rearrange my whole life just for a couple of horned owls.
* * * * *
I asked Mr. MacGregor what to do about them, and he said that he didn’t know.
“Is that all you’ve got to say?” I asked him.
“It’s all for the present,” he replied. He didn’t seem to want to talk about them very much.
“Do you think we’d like them any better if they were stuffed?” I asked.
“No,” he said shortly.
So I dropped the subject and tried to forget. The owls were sitting on the top of a bookcase at the time, and I put a screen up in front of them. This helped a little, but it was almost worse at night to look at the screen and know that they were sitting behind there with their eyes wide open, even though I couldn’t see them. A couple of nights I even thought I heard them whispering.