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Sacred Truths as Jests

A rabbi who was the son of a much famous rabbi, had many ardent followers. On every Sabbath he did not expound the law of Moses or the Torah in the midst of followers, but cracked jokes, and diverted them with merry tales. Everybody, even the greybeards, laughed heartily.

A visitor got surprised. "How can a holy teacher and his followers behave in such an outrageous way? Celebrating the Saturday with nonsense, funny stories and jest! Rabbi, be ashamed: read the Torah!"

"Torah," exclaimed the rabbi. "What do you suppose I have been expounding here? Sacred truth is found in all stories and jests!" (Ausubel 1948:264, retold).

A Cheerful Man

To anecdotes

When they reached Bolt Court, a certain Edwards said to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer:

"You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried, too, in my time, to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in." [in Fuller 197]

Love for a Book

The US novelist James Carroll (1943-) once told how he was honoured with a special tour of the Little, Brown warehouse in Boston after his novel Mortal Friends had been published in 1978. His host and tour guide, a company executive, showed him the assembly line along which workers wrapped, boxed, and mailed off books to wholesalers and bookstores.

At one point the executive introduced Carroll to one of the workers who said, "Mr. Carroll, we all just love your book."

He took it as a great compliment. To think that the workers had actually read his book!

But then she went on. "We just love it. It's the perfect size for packing." (Fadiman 1985:411)

Reading tombstones

When Charles Lamb (1775–1834), a very early reader, was little more than an infant, he was walking through a graveyard with his sister, Mary, ten years older. Charles was reading what was written on the gravestones or tables. They all exalted the dead that were buried beneath them. As he came away, he turned to his sister and asked: "Mary, where are the naughty people buried?" (Gross 2006, 88)

Augustine on Time

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) wrote:

[W]hat is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? . . . What, then, is time? . . . iI wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. . . . [S]hould the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. (St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey [London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1937], book 11, chap. 14, para. 17. - In Rescher 2015, 68-69)


"All this seems very puzzling. . . .

"To all appearances, the present alone is currently real, with the past long gone and the future not available. It is regrettable that there is no fully satisfactory way of explaining what is at issue here. . . .

"To combine space and time (and wish for the "space-time" unification of which relativity theory speaks), the fact remains that those two potencies play very different roles . . .

" [W]e cannot escape the daunting realization that we ourselves and pretty well everything about us are 'here today, gone tomorrow.' . . .

" But even then, there yet remains the realization that reality is impervious to what we think about it."

(Nicholas Rescher 2015, 69-70, passim)

Yogi Berra on Time and the Future

Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra (1925–2015) from St. Louis was an American professional baseball catcher known for his impromptu pithy comments, malapropisms, and seemingly unintentional witticisms with an underlying and powerful message that offered not just humour, but wisdom. (WP, "Yogi Berra")

When asked, "What time is it?" - "You mean now?" (Berra 2003)

The future ain't what it used to be. (Berra 2003, 129)



John Gross has edited The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. It is a successor to James Sutherland's and Donald Hall's anthologies of the same kind. (2006, x)

The word 'anecdote' was imported into the English language in the second half of the seventeenth century, and that it took a generation or two to establish such stories well. The word 'anecdote' comes through French from the Greek. It originally meant 'something unpublished'. When English writers began to speak of anecdotes, they referred to glimpses behind the political scenes, intimate revelations about rulers and ministers. (Ibid. vii)

In the early eighteenth century the word had begun to get the looser sense which it has had ever since. As the Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it, it is 'a short account of an entertaining or interesting incident'. To most people, an anecdote simply means a good story. And thus it can be about anyone or anything. Most of us like to tell stories about ourselves, our friends and others. At the same time, a great part of the published anecdoes are about publicly prominent figures, and relate to "the cult of celebrity". Anecdotes about the famous often reflect their fame in common incidents that are assumed to be fascinating when they involve a star. (Ibid. viii)

Be that as it may, the public appetite for anecdotes increased throughout the eighteenth century, especially towards the end. (Ibid. vii-viii)

Literature no longer occupies as commanding a place in among English-speaking people as it once did. (Ibid. viii)

Gross restricts his range to authors writing in English, and affirms:

Many of the anecdotes in this collection illustrate the working habits of authors, their sources of inspiration, their attitude to colleagues, their dealings with publishers, a dozen different aspects of their careers. Many others, however, have no direct bearing on authorship or literary life. Boswell gave the warrant for such a mixed approach when he described his Johnson anecdotes as 'literary and characteristical', without drawing any particular distinction between the two categories. (Ibid. ix)

Gross considers that if a writer in an anecdote is someone whom we have read, or whose legend has touched our imagination, we are likely to bring a whole complex of feelings to bear on the story, and it takes on its own distinctive tone. Also, many anecdotes show writers acting out of character. Such stories are the reverse side of the coin: they defeat many set expectations, he finds.

In their work, some writers take us into a nice universe, so to speak. But they themselves may not be nice all the way through, as if one side to the author writes the books, and other sides hopefully get through the rest of the day. While the aspects of the writer that gets through the rest of the day may be "admirable or formidable, he may equally well be vain, jealous, mean, cantankerous, or plain weird." (Ibid. ix) "There is an excellent chance that he will drink too much," Gross adds (Ibid. x), and divulges further:

The sins of writers are a recurrent theme in this book. So are their weaknesses and misfortunes. Anecdotalists thrive on such material. The anecdote is a natural home for disabused views and unflattering closeups, for the ludicrous or disreputable detail which you won't find in official tributes. (Ibid. x)

An anecdote is rarely the whole story of a person. Some folks have better wit, show originality and greatness to them than a single anecdote may show. (cf. Gross 2006, x)

Some Gross Quotations

"Anecdotes spring up at random." - John Gross. (2006, xi)

Straightforward anecdotes take their place alongside what might be called anecdotal material – oddities of behaviour, items which weave two or three incidents together. - John Gross, (2006, xi)

Many anecdotes hinge on something that someone said, but in an immediate situation. Witty observations in themselves are not enough. - John Gross, (2006, xi)

Whether a particular anecdote is true . . . In most cases the answer is unlikely to be a straight yes or no. - John Gross, (2006, xii)

I must admit that the question of getting the facts right occasionally nags at me. - John Gross, (2006, xii)

Anecdotes are a form of entertainment – at their best, an art form. - John Gross, (2006, xii)

I have opted for what seems to me the most concise and readable version. (This isn't always the most scholarly one.) I can only plead that I have tried to strike a balance, to be reader-friendly . . . - John Gross, (2006, xii)

Humorous Stories, anecdotes, tales, Literature  

Ausubel, Nathan. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: The Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs. New York: Crown, 1948.

Berra, Yogi, with Dave Kaplan. 2003. What Time Is It? You Mean Now? New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fadiman, Clifton, main ed. The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

Fuller, Edmund. 2500 Anecdotes for All Occasions. New York: Wings, 1970.

Evans, Geo. G. The Book of Anecdotes and Budget of Fun Containing a Collection of Over One Thousand of the Most Laughable Sayings and Jokes of Celebrated Wits and Humorists. Philadelphia, PA: Geo. G Evans, 1859.

Gross, John. 2006. The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, Patrick, comp. The Book of Modern Irish Anecdotes: Humour, Wit, and Wisdom. London: G. Routledge, 1872.

Reader's Digest. Fun and Laughter: A Treasure House of Humor. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1967.

Rescher, Nicolas. 2015. A Journey through Philosophy in 101 Anecdotes. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Scissors and Paste. A Humorous Melange: Ha! Ha!! Ha!!! A Volume of Humorous and Satirical Sketches, Selected from the Leading Journals of the Day. New York: Gem Publishing and Manuf 'g Co., 1881.

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