Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I’m old enough to remember encyclopedias, and lucky to have grown up in a house that had a Victorian collection of books. We weren’t particularly encouraged to look at those books as children, but I spent a lot of rainy afternoons as a teenager flicking through bound albums of Punch looking for cartoons that I could understand.
There were also books almost to big for one person to manage alone; they needed a table to support them, and looking at them was something of a group activity.
Every time I try and pick up* the 2-volume whopper that is The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons (A Semi-Serious A-to-Z Archive) I’m reminded of those books. Not just because of the size, but because it has the same air of wanting to be shared, and being an evenings entertainment in itself that those Victorian monsters had.
I’ve been working my way through it for a week or so now with growing delight at each particularly funny discovery. If I didn’t already have it, it would be top of my wish list. I’m in love with it because I adore these kind of cartoons (I still miss Punch which I bought religiously in my early teens for the cartoons (it’s an extra bonus to find a few artists I remember working for the New Yorker too), and the encyclopaedia format is great as well.
Arranging by subject first, and then chronologically, works really well; there’s some discussion about the various tropes and themes which is useful, and it’s particularly fascinating to see how cultural references are picked up and re-worked over the years. It’s also a terrific historical record of everything from A to Z.
Something hard to do without basically reproducing the index is give any sense of how varied the subjects are. Some, like feminism, Greek mythology, fashion, or divorce seem obvious, but who knew there were so many cartoons about Easter Island, ketchup, or hourglasses? And yet when you see them they feel utterly familiar – even in the to me slightly unfamiliar American context.
It’s a catalogue of a collective consciousness shared through books, magazines, television, film, and above all humour that bridges generations and continents. And that’s fascinating as well as funny.
The best thing though is still the desire to sit at a table, open each volume up, and spend some time going through them, sharing jokes, with family and friends. It’s not often these days that I find, or even think of, a book in terms of a group activity, but there’s something very appealing about it now that I’ve been reminded of that particular pleasure.
*It weighs 6.8 kilograms – or about the same as a case of 6 bottles of wine. It’s a big, not very serious, book.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader
David Remnick & Bob Mankoff, The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons (Thames & Hudson, 2018) 978=0500022450, 1536pp., hardback.
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