It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.
Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I still pick it up from my shelf at times to re-read certain passages when I want to cheer myself up. The sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, wasn’t quite as funny but I did enjoy reading that book too and was looking forward to trying this one, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (published in 1886, a few years before Three Men in a Boat).
Unlike the other two books I’ve read by Jerome, this is not a novel but a collection of short essays covering topics as diverse as Cats and Dogs, Eating and Drinking, Being in Love and Being Shy. The tone of his writing varies from essay to essay – sometimes he is melancholy and poignant, sometimes satirical and hilarious (I should warn you that if you read any of Jerome’s books in public, you won’t be able to stop yourself from smiling and should be prepared for people asking you what’s so funny).
A few examples:
On the vanity of cats…
I do like cats. They are so unconsciously amusing. There is such a comic dignity about them, such a “How dare you!” “Go away, don’t touch me” sort of air. Now, there is nothing haughty about a dog. They are “Hail, fellow, well met” with every Tom, Dick, or Harry that they come across. When I meet a dog of my acquaintance I slap his head, call him opprobrious epithets, and roll him over on his back; and there he lies, gaping at me, and doesn’t mind it a bit. Fancy carrying on like that with a cat! Why, she would never speak to you again as long as you lived.
There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”
On buying an umbrella…
I bought one and found that he was quite correct. It did open and shut itself. I had no control over it whatever. When it began to rain, which it did that season every alternate five minutes, I used to try and get the machine to open, but it would not budge; and then I used to stand and struggle with the wretched thing, and shake it, and swear at it, while the rain poured down in torrents. Then the moment the rain ceased the absurd thing would go up suddenly with a jerk and would not come down again; and I had to walk about under a bright blue sky, with an umbrella over my head, wishing that it would come on to rain again, so that it might not seem that I was insane.
I did enjoy this book, but I didn’t like it as much as the two Three Men…novels. I found it very uneven – there are some great lines and anecdotes, but it’s also quite boring in places, especially when he becomes very sentimental. It’s worth reading (and the lack of a plot makes it a perfect book to dip in and out of when you have a few spare minutes) but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential, must-read classic. On the other hand, this is what Jerome himself says about the book in his Preface:
What readers ask nowadays 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. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading “the best hundred books,” you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.
It was certainly a change!