Visit any bookstore and you'll see that a whole spectrum of once-viable books are no longer considered desirable. It's virtually impossible, for instance, to give away a set of old encyclopedias. The "…for Dummies" series of books about outdated computer programs are literally not worth the paper and ink they're printed on. And very few people have any interest in antique buying guides.
Another book that seems to be falling out of favor is the humble joke book. While you can find an array of single-serving humor titles based on viral websites in most bookstore humor sections - I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, for instance, or Around the World in Cut-Outs - it's hard to find a book of funny thoughts, puns, or observations in most humor sections. Presumably, it's so simple to find funny things on the internet that nobody needs the The New York City Cab Driver's Joke Book (a classic of the genre, by the way) anymore.
I'd argue, though, that joke books haven't entirely disappeared. They've simply moved a few shelves over in the bookstore, into the poetry section.
Elissa Ball, a Seattle poet who moved to Spokane a few years ago but still keeps deep roots on this side of the mountains, bills herself as a poet and comic. That is to say, she doesn't make the stuffy distinction of "serious" and "unserious" work. Sometimes, standup comedy is poetry. Sometimes poetry is standup comedy. Sometimes nothing is funny. Sometimes, everything is.
Ball's latest book of poetry from Seattle's Cold Cube Press, More or Less, is a handsome little brick of a thing. It's powder blue, and risograph printed so warmly that you can feel the human touch on every single page. The book is riddled with magazine-style illustrations by Kelly Bjork and Joe Rudko that resemble the best of 1950s graphic design. It's a colorful package of delights to open and flip through, the kind of book that makes a case for bookmaking as an art in itself.
The premise of More or Less is a simple one. On just about every page, Ball offers two concepts that sound similar: "tumor," say, and "rumor." Or "open source" and "open sores." Then, she places a "less than" or "greater than" symbol - for those of you who failed out of math at an early age, that's "< " and ">" - between the two words or phrases, making a value judgment. (Rumors, in the example above, are greater than tumors, and open sores are obviously less than open source.)
That's pretty much the whole deal. Ball is playing with language on every page: Homonyms, antonyms, puns, plucky wordplay - you name it, it's in here.
mercy > MRSA
many donuts > mini donuts
shark tank < shark tankini
What's the point? It's a framework for linguistic fun, an attempt to get a laugh out of readers by toying with their sense of surprise and their expectations. That's pretty much it, and it's pretty great.
More or Less feels like a concept that could've easily been published in the 1950s - back before average people became scarily militant against puns and before "dad jokes" officially became A Thing. Now, it's so retrograde that it feels charming all over again, a simple lark that doesn't overstay its welcome, cheerfully inviting the reader to while away some time on the concept.
Somewhere out there, a thinkpiece is just begging to be written by some finger-wagging young essayist with something to prove about the merging of comedy and poetry. It's easy to imagine Seattle poet Sarah Galvin, whose readings often bleed into a kind of stand-up comedy, and Ball as examples of the degradation of a wall that stood sacrosanct for many decades. Patricia Lockwood gets a lot of flack for being "unserious," even though she's one of the best American poets to emerge in the last decade or so.
But while it's true that poetry was serious as a heart attack for most of the 1970s and 80s, many Americans were alive at a time when Ogden Nash was one of the biggest names in contemporary poetry, and when books of limericks were routinely on the bestseller charts.
What Ball is doing here is reclaiming a tradition that got lost somewhere during the MFA-ification of American poetry. She's employing a playful poet's energy to toy with language in a lighter - but still important - way.
My one qualm with More or Less is on the first real page of the book, when Ball explains the premise. First, she explains how "more than" and "less than" symbols work - an important lesson for a literary audience. But then she goes on:
This book contains comparisons and opinions. What makes one thing greater than or less than another thing, anyway?
The value judgments are mine.
Yours might be different.
I don't object to what Ball is saying here. I just object to the fact that she's saying it 'out loud' in print. The fact that the comparisons are Ball's own opinion is evident in the fact that they're, uh, published in a book with Ball's name on the cover. If Ball left everything in the above quote unwritten and trusted the reader to intuit it on her own, the reader would likely appreciate it more for realizing it herself.
But, really, why do we like one thing more than another thing? What makes preference such an atomic desire in sentient beings? Even babies - hell, even dogs and cats - innately make decisions like this every day: this toy is better than that toy. This food is greater than that food. This experience is lesser than that one. It's an incredibly complex decision-making procedure that happens in less than a second on an unconscious level. It's a deadly serious facet of humanity that demands light-hearted inspection. And Ball is just the poetic comedian - or is it comedic poet? - to do the inspecting.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant