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Lifeline Bookfest, Brisbane, around Australia Day, 2006

Norman Wallis's hunt for humor books at the Lifeline Bookfest, Brisbane…

Humor books seem to be taking over my collection.

I’m quite fond of history and biography – especially if they are about humor or comedians – but I was particularly looking for humor books at the Lifeline Bookfest.

I was especially looking for older humor books.

In previous years I’ve found some rare humor classics as I’ve fossicked around at the tables at Bookfests – things like Humorous Tales from ‘Blackwood’.

This was an anthology of memoirs of true adventures throughout the British Empire, originally published in Blackwood Magazine, a long-defunct magazine that was published in Edinburgh.

The book looked like it had been published in the 1930s or 40s, and the writing had no pretension about it, just down-to-earth narrative, like someone sitting by a fire and telling a tale.

Another satisfying find at a previous Bookfest was a book of poetry by Richard Brautigan: The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster.

Yet another gem was Coco the Clown, by Nicolai Poliakoff, 1951 edition, originally published 1941 – a fascinating memoir by a Russian clown, traveling Europe in various circuses, living through times like the Bolshevik revolution.

Plus I’ve picked up a few books by gag writer Robert Orben.

However, when I entered the unpriced section at the Bookfest this year, I resisted the urge to head straight for the Humour and Oddities table.

Instead, I casually browsed around other tables – as I generally made my way over to the humor table.

This apparently desultory modus operandi was soon rewarded.

As I walked past the Travel table I noticed a steel-blue hardback book someone must have had second thoughts about.

The author’s name: Stephen Leacock.

Bingo! I read the title: Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich.

Stephen Leacock was a Canadian humorist who wrote from the late 1800s to the 1940s.

His humor writing was dry and clever, and I found out later that he had satirized city life in this book.

It was the book he wrote after his masterpiece Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, (1912) which I’d bought at a previous Lifeline Bookfest.

The Best of Stephen Leacock 2 was another previous Bookfest find.

I’d never heard of Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, but I knew it would be good.

Eventually I found myself at the Humour and Oddities table.

It wasn’t long before I found more gold.

Benchley Roundup was a collection of columns by Robert Benchley edited by his son Nathaniel Benchley.

Robert Benchley was the other great humor writer of the twentieth century – writing from around the 1920s to late 1930s.

He was the grandfather of Peter Benchley who wrote Jaws.

I wish I could say Robert Benchley’s humor was biting… but it’s more a gentle type of humor, with word play – a bit surreal – and he had been a big influence on many humorists, like Woody Allen and S.J. Perelman.

I had a few of his books already, from previous Bookfests, but this was a good collection of many of his pieces, and I liked the look and feel of this book.

It was a solid little paperback, printed in 1965 by Dell.

This one looked brand new, except it was better made than most of the paperbacks you buy today.

At an earlier Lifeline booksale, I’d bought another great Dell book: a well-written biography of Napolean, also published in the 1960s.

Back on the humor books, I found a few more as the day progressed.

I’d never heard of Bennett Cerf, but I bought a few of his books, including Laughing Stock and Laughter Incorporated.

These hard cover books were well-made, published in the 1940s, nice font, and a cursory read of the gags was promising.

Later I learned that Bennett Cerf was the co-founder of the publishers Random House, and used to write collections of jokes and anecdotes.

Again, the craftsmanship was obvious here in this humor writing; it would be the sort of writing comic strip writers ought to read to see how to write gags.

Then I found another wonderful book. It Must Be True, by Denys Parsons.

It was a thin hardcover book, about 60 pages, with original dust jacket, illustrated by Ronald Searle, and printed in 1953.

Denys Parsons used to collect typographical errors from newspapers – errors that resulted in amusing unintended meanings.

I’ve been collecting his books for a while, like The Best of Shrdlu.

I bought a lot of those Mad Magazine books, too, from the 1960s and 1970s, which I have also been collecting.

One of these was Mad About Mad! by Sergio Aragones, published in 1970.

Sergio Aragones drew the tiny marginal comics in Mad Magazine; apparently he’s been drawing them for 40 years now.

I picked up a few other treasures, like The Best of Dorothy Parker – a nice green hardback with a red dust jacket, published in 1955 by Methuen.

Dorothy Parker had a stylish persona, and a nice style of humor writing, and was a colleague of Robert Benchley.

One of my best finds was a book called Comedy, put out by Doubleday Anchor in 1956, with an introduction by Wylie Sypher.

This included Henri Bergson’s Laughter, which is about 130 pages of comedy plotting techniques, and about what makes characters funny.

If you want to learn how to write comedy and humor Laughter will save you a lot of time.

The book also included George Meredith’s An Essay on Comedy.

I found a few more treasures at the unpriced section at the Lifeline Bookfest, and when I’d filled my black sports bag I headed for the checkout tables.
People had formed small queues at each table, but it wasn’t long before I was served.

I emptied my bag and one volunteer took my books and checked inside the cover for the prices, added them up in his head, then wrote the total price on a piece of paper which he handed to me.

Then he passed the books to another volunteer who put them into plastic bags, each of which she sealed with a strip of colored tape, before handing them to me.

I gave the piece of paper with the total price to another volunteer at the cash register and paid.

As usual, I’d filled the sports bag with high quality books for little more than twenty dollars.

And it was a big black sports bag, like the ones the bank robbers carried in the movie Heat.

I went home and put all the books in piles on a table, stared at them for a while, and started flicking through them.

Then I returned on Tuesday, when most of the crowd was at work.

One of the organizers told me the Bookfests weren’t held in any other city in Australia except Toowoomba, due to logistical problems.

There are two Bookfests a year in Brisbane: around Australia Day in late January, and the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in mid-June.

For the past few years they have been held at the Brisbane Convention Centre in South Brisbane, which is a short walk across the Brisbane River from the city centre.

The Bookfests are well-organised, with a simple and efficient lay-out, and you’re guaranteed lots of dirt- cheap, high-quality books.

Preparations for the June Bookfest were due to commence as soon as this one finished.

For book lovers, the Lifeline Bookfest is a good reason to come to Brisbane, or stay in Brisbane, every late January or mid-June.

Bring a big bag, preferably black.

– Story by Norman Wallis.