The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber. Harper & Brothers, 1945.
Gene: Oh, I think I know about this book! When was this one published?
S: This one is from the forties so it was printed on this very soft, fuzzy paper. “This book is complete and unabridged in contents and is manufactured in strict conformity with government regulations for saving paper.”
G: (flipping through it) It doesn’t have as many illustrations as I thought.
S: My family are big readers, but we’re not big book-owners or book buyers. There were not many books that we owned, but there were always a ton of books around from the library. This is one of the few books my mom owned. At some point in my late elementary years, maybe junior high-ish, I picked it up.
G: Just looking at one of the pages here, there’s a scent coming off it that’s going to make me sneeze.
S: Oh yeah?
G: I’m going to back up…. (massive sneeze) What kind of spores are coming off that page?? (laughs)
S: It was the first time I had read this kind of short humorous essay, the kind that later in my life I recognized as the classic New Yorker style. They were so funny and accessible to me as a kid, I didn’t feel like a lot of it was over my head. That’s when I started reading this kind of thing, when I started camping out in the 800s, the part of the library where you find all the essayists.
G: I never caught that bug, I gotta tell you.
S: That was really nice for me, especially when I was in college and I had to read a lot of things for school. I could pick something up to read that was short. That was my little escape. I didn’t have to commit to a whole book.
G: Did Thurber illustrate this himself?
S: Yes, these are all illustrated by him. He has a wonderful style.
G: (coughing fit) Oh my god.
S: Would you settle down?
G: For the record I want it to be noted that I’m having trouble breathing, that’s why I’m not talking!
S: There’s nothing wrong with this book!
G: (continues wheezing and swearing)
S: There’s a lot of stuff from his book My Life and Hard Times which is his autobiographical stuff and more about his family, and it does also have “The Catbird Seat,” which I later studied in English class.
G: (blows nose loudly) Are the essays all autobiographical?
S: No, some are short stories. It’s got “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
But I really liked the autobiographical stuff.
In The Moving Toyshop, somebody was described as looking just like one of the Thurber dogs. I could absolutely picture it!
G: Was he a cartoonist as well as being an essayist?
G: Did he do one panel New Yorker cartoons?
S: Uh huh.
G: This seems like a strange book for you to be reading at a young age.
S: That’s why I think it’s a wonderful serendipity that it was one of the books that was around. I maybe ran out of books and started going through what was in the house.
G: Give me the pitch. Why should I read this?
S: (laughs) Well, that’s the thing… I have to separate how I would recommend it from my own experience with the book. For me, there’s this wonderful world of the greats of the short humorous essay that were the precursor to a lot of other kinds of writing. Later I got into Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman and the contemporary writers like Roy Blount and Dave Barry.
G: Do you think David Sedaris is in there too?
S: Yeah, absolutely.