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Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes Hardcover – 23 Oct 2008

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (23 Oct. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184668109X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846681097
  • Product Dimensions: 12 x 2 x 18.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 506,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Wholesome fun for all the family. (Christopher Hitchens)

Small, witty, and delightful...a worthy successor to Harry Frankfurt's brilliant On Bullshit. (Simon Blackburn The New York Sun)

Explodes the myth that the high and low brow are more than a couple of inches apart....Seriously funny stuff. (Colin McGinn, author of The Making of a Philosopher)

Fast-moving, idiosyncratic...a stocking-stuffer. (The New York Times Book Review)

Finally, I understand what it is I've been laughing at for all these years. (Jimmy Kimmel)

Jim Holt manages here to be deadly serious and perfectly hilarious at the same time. (Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the US)

This excellent little book will be my Christmas present (Guy Browning)

Viewed through Holt's complex, concise lens, the joke comes off as a contender for humankind's most profound mode of expression. (Elle)

Holt...takes in so much about the history and philosophy of joke-telling in his concise and amiable conspectus of the subject. (The Wall Street Journal)

Jim Holt riffs in Stop Me If You've Heard This. (Vanity Fair)

Concise and witty (Waterstone's Books Quarterly 2008-09-01)

Entertaining... raises a good number of laughs (Sunday Times 2008-10-26)

A sweet, witty and intelligent little book. I only wish that, unlike a good joke, it was longer. (William Leith Guardian)

[A] fast-moving, idiosyncratic survey of humour (David Robinson Scotsman 2008-11-03)

Holt has the answers... his delivery is seamless... all good stuff (Sunday Herald 2008-11-16)

An ideal gift for someone with a sense of humour...droll and quirky (Milly Getachew New Statesman)

More treat than treatise, an ideal gift (Milly Getachew New Statesman 2008-12-08)

Book Description

Why do we laugh? Where do jokes come from? And have we always laughed at the same things? In this unique, witty and fascinating little book of history and philosophy, Jim Holt reveals all - and throws in the best jokes from the past 2,000 years.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ramus on 18 Oct. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was curious about it, I suppose, so I bought it. I was expecting a more serious analysis on what is humour and why we find certain things funny. Predictably the book presents lots of jokes by way of illustration, but most aren't funny (OK, that's forgivable because it's not meant to be a joke book). Some history of jokes is covered, which is quite interesting. However, my overriding impression is that the book is rather depthless and sketchy, and it fails to deliver a reasonable instruction on the history and philosophy of jokes.
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By Ayse Coskun on 9 Mar. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've got many knowledge from this little but heavy book. Especially, to learn about Poggio Bracciolini! He was papal secretary in Vatican, collected/investigated all sorts of jokes and had numerous mistresses!
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By Wise fool on 22 Dec. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jim Holt, the author of this book, writes wonderfully well The book is a very concise and thoughtful journey through jokes and the role they play in life. Thoughtful and critical.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 28 reviews
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Kalamazoo! 25 July 2008
By Bart King - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an erudite and clever book, hence the five stars. I'd expect nothing less from author Jim Holt, whose work I've enjoyed immensely before. But as much as I liked Stop Me If You've Heard This, my enjoyment was, of necessity, short-lived.

At less than 7-by-5 inches in size, this is a smallish book. It's also a slender one. If you subtract the index, credits, and bibliography, it has 126 pages of material. Now subtract the 24 illustrations and you're down to 102 pages of text.

At this point, one notices the book's colossal margins, and how humankind's entire "history of jokes" is covered in 41 pages. In fact, this section is as much about joke collectors throughout the ages as the jokes themselves.

But all is forgiven in the book's second half ("Philosophy"), wherein Holt really shines. In addition to providing a variety of jokes types, there are also a number of worthy theories regarding their origins, classifications, and ramifications. In short, this is the part of the book where you'll laugh.

To sum up, while I anticipated a hardcover book, what I got was a bound copy of two essays. These were, respectively, good and most excellent. But imagining a bookstore shopper paying this book's list price of $15.95 makes me a little uneasy. While I was happy to avail myself of the on-line discount, perhaps the publisher could have taken this book's price point more... seriously?

*Finally, as to "Kalamazoo!", it is Holt's submission for the shortest joke in the world. (You'll have to read his explanation on pp. 79-80.)
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Though short, it packs a punch! 2 Sept. 2008
By Blaine Greenfield - Published on
Format: Hardcover
PHILOSOPHY OF JOKES by Jim Holt reminded me of many papers
that my students submit . . there seems to be 142 pages, but after
you subtract a bibliography, credits and an index, you are down
to 126 pages . . . take away another 24 pages for illustrations,
and you're down to 102 pages in a smallish 4.5 x 7 format with
very wide margins.

However, don't be put off by what seems to be a lack
of material . . . what is presented is interesting, as well as fun . . . and
you'll learn perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about such
individuals as Gershon Legman (the encylopedist of the dirty joke), Nat
Schmulowitz (the most prodigious joke collector of all time) and Alan
Dundes (the "joke professor" of Berkeley who saw a sinister side
in elephant jokes).

I kid you not about the latter . . . as the author notes:

* It is no accident that elephant jokes appeared around the beginning
of the civil rights movement, he said. Consider the parallels between
the elephant and the white stereotype of the black: the association
with the jungle, the potential for violence, the idea of unusually large
genitals and corresponding sexual capacity. "You can see this even
in the seemingly most nonsensical jokes," he said. "Why did the
elephant sit on the marshmallow? So he wouldn't fall into the cocoa.
That reflects the white person's fear of blacks moving into his
neighborhood--they're trying to sit on the white oasis in the chocolate,
so to speak. This joke was being told at a time when even liberals felt
anxious about the effects of integration." I confessed to Dundes that
I found his interpretation a tad, well, oversubtle. But he insisted that
there was plenty of anecdotal data in its favor. "When a psychiatrist
friend of mine asked his black secretary if she knew any elephant
jokes, she said, 'Why would we tell them? They're about us.' "

Holt also presents a wide variety of jokes, including these:

* There are jokes about musical instruments, especially the viola,
which seems to be especially despised in the world of classical music.
(Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the viola recital.
Or, in a more esoteric vein, How was the canon invented? When two violists
attempted to play in unison.)

* There are short jokes, some with a single-syllable punch line. (What's
brown and sounds like a bell? Dung!) There is even the rare joke
consisting of only two words. ("Pretentious? Moi?").

* But what of the pun, widely and perhaps justly regarded as the lowest
form of humor? (Vladimir Nabokov, when told by a professor of English
that a nun who was auditing one of the professor's classes had complained
that two students in the back of the classroom were "spooning" during
a lecture: "You should have said, 'Sister, you're lucky they weren't
forking.' ") Well, one might say that in wordplay we are enjoying
our superiority to language or reason. But now the superiority theory
has become elastic to the point of meaninglessness.

STOP ME might not be the funniest book you'll ever read; however,
I do believe that with respect to jokes, it will be one of the most
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
No! No! Don't Stop! 5 Sept. 2008
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Jim Holt, a columnist and contributor to the _New Yorker_, collects jokes, and the shortest among them is two words: "Pretentious? Moi?" It is fitting that he has included it in his book _Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes_ (Norton), for his own book is tiny, and despite its brevity, it succeeds in delivering its intended history and philosophy just as well as the two-word joke delivers a smile. It might seem strange that jokes should be a subject for philosophical enquiries, but consider how central they are to the human condition. Sit down at a dinner party, and a good deal of the conversation will be directed at putting together strings of words that will elicit laughter from the hearers. Another reason jokes ought to be considered food for philosophical thought is that philosophers through history have indeed speculated about them, and have come up with answers about why jokes are funny, but none of the answers is complete or completely satisfying. Another reason to study the history and philosophy of jokes is that when one does so, one necessarily gets to read lots of jokes, and Holt's little volume does contain plenty of good ones.

The book is divided into two parts, necessarily "History" and "Philosophy". There were jokebooks of the ancients, since Plautus refers to their existence in his comic plays, but only one has come down to us, the _Philolegos_ ("laughter lover") from the fourth or fifth century C.E. The jokes in it are peopled with stock characters like the miser, the drunk, and the sex-starved woman. "How shall I cut your hair?" a talkative barber asks a customer. "In silence!" comes the retort. Holt writes admiringly of the more contemporary work of joke collector Gershon Legman, who claimed to have invented the slogan "Make Love, Not War" and who obtained books for Alfred Kinsey's collection. The admiration is muted, however: "Reading through Legman's vast compilation of dirty jokes is a punishing experience, like being trapped in the men's room of a Greyhound bus station in the 1950s." Philosophy, of course, seems to begin with the Greeks; Plato said that the proper objects of laughter are vice and folly, both well illustrated in jokes here. Immanuel Kant explained that incongruity was what led to laughter, but the philosopher Henri Bergson said that laughs came from a feeling of superiority; watch a man slip on a banana peel, and you laugh because you, yourself, would never, ever exhibit such gracelessness. Freud famously proposed that a joke allows laughter to release inhibited thoughts and feelings of sex and aggression. That sounds good, but Holt notes that if Freud is right, the ones "who laugh hardest at lewd jokes should be the ones who are the most sexually repressed. This seems to be backwards. No general explanation of why we laugh at jokes seems to work in all cases, and the problem may be that trying to understand the funniness of specific jokes is just not funny. The explanation of a joke is not funny, it never helps us appreciate the joke more (and often less), and it seldom seems like a good explanation.

As with so many philosophical issues these days, perhaps only because of our current fashions of research, humor may simply come down to the neurological. Using an electric probe to try to find the cause of a patient's seizures, doctors stimulated a part of her left frontal lobe, eliciting a laugh. It happened over and over, and it was not just a mere physical reflex. She really did find things funny, whether she was looking at the operating team, or at a picture of a horse they showed her. Put a little current to the "L-spot" of the brain, and everything becomes a joke. There is little risk that neurosurgical procedures are going to impair the activities of joke-tellers, however; telling a joke is a simpler way of getting a laugh than doing brain probes, and anyway, whatever the purpose of jokes is, it probably cannot be accomplished in such an electromechanical way. Like many things, jokes are probably best appreciated for themselves and not for any thinking that they might inspire. Holt's little volume will inspire some thinking, but it also contains more than its share of good (along with some bad) jokes, including one that he has traced back in different forms which people have been laughing at for fifteen centuries. And he even includes a personal favorite of mine, a meta-joke: "A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, `What is this, a joke?'"
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
What's so funny? 28 Aug. 2008
By Kaeli Vandertulip - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is the question that Holt aims to answer in his short, witty, and pithy book. He traces the history of jokes-when we started telling them, when they were recorded, and how they have evolved (and devolved) over time. He focuses mostly on dirty jokes-jokes about sex, bodily functions, racism, and sexism-namely because at a certain level, all jokes are dirty and tasteless, and that's why we love them. He also examines WHY things are funny from philosophical, psychological, and physiological perspectives. Do we laugh at a joke because it is unexpected, because it allows us to acknowledge the darker sides of our psyche, or because a certain section of our brain is suddenly stimulated?

Holt is a clever writer and provides lots of sample jokes to show what he's trying to explain. However, this book is just too darn short. He could have easily doubled the length of the book to just get into everything. This book gives a few biographies of influential people in the history and study of jokes, but doesn't delve into the theories nearly deeply enough. I was constantly disappointed that he didn't spend more time on each topic. But this just shows how good a read the book is-he leaves the reader wanting more.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A Great Delight in a Small Package 18 Jan. 2014
By Richard B. Schwartz - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
First the caveats: This is not really an extensive history and philosophy of the joke. The subject is far too vast for that and, for many periods, the material is too sparse. A serious philosophy of the joke would require a very large volume. What Holt does is hit the high points. He offers a host of representative jokes and summarizes the chief collectors of and interpreters of the joke as a cultural phenomenon. Some of these individuals (Gershon Legman, Alan Dundes, Nat Schmulowitz) are as interesting and quirky as the material they studied.

The book is tiny. Once you deduct the (clever, amusing) illustrations and account for the 175-or-so-words/page margins, you end up with approximately 17,000 words of text (plus brief bibliography and index). That’s more like two long magazine articles than an actual book. At the same time, you have a terrific stocking stuffer with solid production values.

As you would expect from the author of Why Does the World Exist? this is a well-written, clever piece of work. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it elicited constant smirks and titters. I loved his non sequitur use of Umberto Eco, where he began to make a point, using The Name of the Rose, but couldn’t complete it because he was forced to admit that he couldn’t finish reading the novel.

Finally, this is a good read and we could all use more of those. It is not a scholarly book; it is not a naughty book (for the most part); it is a good read on an important and engaging subject. You couldn’t really read it in public because people would keep interrupting you and asking you why you were laughing. It’s a curl-up-in-a-quiet-corner-and-enjoy book. Johnson once said of Paradise Lost that ‘none ever wished it longer’, but everyone will wish that this book was longer, because it is a great delight in a small package.
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