The ambiguities of the dewey decimal system can send sensitive librarians into a lather. Is 070 (journalism) always so very different from 824 (essays)? TS Eliot: American poet (818) or English (821)? And what about Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat: is it humour (827), a Thames travelogue (914) or a novel ( )?
Most librarians have – erroneously, I think – plumped for the latter. For most of the 20th Century it would have seemed ludicrous that such a classic of wit and character could languish amongst non-fiction. But times change, the novel has lost some of its burnish and it’s non-fiction that cuts a dash in the book charts. It is into such a climate that a little press called Snow Books present their immaculate edition of Jerome’s earlier book, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886).
Of course, amongst non-fiction, the sub-genre of idle-lit is itself hot stuff at the moment. The shelves are chockerblock with books like Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle, Madeleine Bunting’s Willing Slaves, Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow and, slightly further along the row, Pat Kane’s The Play Ethic. These are all people for whom Jerome’s words ring true: “It is in the petty details, not in the great results, that the interest of existence lies.” The Idler don’t defer their lives until they are too old to live it, they realise that to enjoy the moment doesn’t require one to jump out of airplanes or live life at five times the average speed. But don’t make the mistake in thinking that because they aren’t manic that they must be content. Jerome again:
Contented, unambitious people are all very well in their way. They form a neat, useful background for the great portraits to be painted against, and they make a respectable, if not particularly intelligent, audience for the active spirits of the age to play before. I have not a word to say against contented people so long as they keep quiet. But do not, for goodness’ sake, let them go strutting about, as they are so fond of doing, crying out that they are the true models for the whole species. Why, they are the deadheads, the drones in the great hive, the streetcrowds that lounge about, gaping at those who are working.
Jerome’s prose is addictive, one finds oneself aping his mannerism; it is not difficult to see how influential it was on P.G. Wodehouse. But where should it go? Fiction? No, it may be fantastical in places, but there are no tricks. Essays? No, they aren’t so much essays as flights of fancy, following whatever twists and turns spring to mind. For instance, a chapter on Babies takes in social embarrassment, parenthood, unconscious humour and mortality, things only loosely connected to the title. How about humorous prose then? Maybe, but I get the feeling that in doing so we are denying that wit is a key constituent of intelligence and knowledge.
So where? My personal suggestion is Self-help (158.1). Despite Jerome’s prefatory remarks to the contrary – “What readers ask now-a-days in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever.” – it is in that vile genre where he is most needed. For one thing, instead of mindlessly repeating mantras, Jerome K Jerome has actually had occasion to have thought about stuff. He is also the cause of thought in others, shooing away dogma with a superb lightness of touch.
If the Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow has a fault, it is that it isn’t Three Men in a Boat. It doesn’t have the riverine flow of that book to contextualise the witty observations. He is like a comedian, a Ross Noble, making it up as he goes along. When it flows, it is captivating; when it doesn’t, it is dull. Thankfully, the former far outweighs the latter. It is the perfect Christmas gift, for decadents, dilettantes, and idlers. As well as those who would benefit from ambling in that direction.