We're cheating this week and recommending not a single work but an entire author: PG Wodehouse.
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1917
(Wodehouse is pronounced "woodhouse," btw)
You may already know of Wodehouse's most famous character: Jeeves, the perfect butler. (Although Jeeves only buttled in one or two stories. He was usually in the position of being a personal valet, or "gentleman's gentleman," to a hapless but sweet young man named Bertie Wooster.)
What else do you need to know about Wodehouse? Only that he is absolutely delightful. He's witty and silly and can put slapstick, a clever play on words, and a reference to Shakespeare in the same sentence and make it work.
The tone of his writing is sparklingly, unfailingly cheerful and thoroughly good-natured. Most of his stories are set in some ambiguous early-20th-century period in English history when there was no World War I, no political unrest, nothing unpleasant looming on the temporal horizon. His protagonists are men of leisure with no greater troubles than avoiding an unwanted marriage or an angry aunt. (Or helping a friend woo a girl, stealing an object for its rightful owner, or persuading a quarreling couple to reconcile -- this is very light-hearted fare!) There is no cruelty or grief in these stories, all injuries are made whole, all scrapes are gotten out of, Jeeves always saves the day. If you ever find yourself in the throes of any existential angst, ennui, misanthropy, and/or mild-to-moderate spell of depression, reach for Wodehouse as an antidote.
It's not so much his plots that make Wodehouse so worth reading, but that every individual sentence he puts down is a little jewel. Here are some random examples for you to have a sense of his gift for imagery --
- Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.
- She looked at me like someone who has just solved the crossword puzzle with a shrewd "Emu'' in the top right hand corner.
- He uttered a sound much like a bulldog swallowing a pork chop whose dimensions it has underestimated.
- Presently, the door opened and his head emerged cautiously, like that of a snail taking a look around after a thunderstorm.
- He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to shove cyanide in the consommé, and the dinner-gong due any moment.
- He was either a man of about a hundred and fifty who was rather young for his years or a man of about a hundred and ten who had been aged by trouble.
- “What ho!" I said.
"What ho!" said Motty.
"What ho! What ho!"
"What ho! What ho! What ho!"
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.
His writing career spanned 70 years (from his first book in 1902 until his death in 1975), he wrote almost 100 novels and over 200 short stories, and if you're thinking right now, "Holy smokes, where would I start?" -- you could start anywhere. It's all good. Personally, I like the Jeeves & Wooster stories and novels the best, and it's not necessary to read them in any particular order -- just look for any book with "Jeeves" or "Wooster" in the title. If you'd like to begin with Jeeves and Wooster's first meeting, read the story "Jeeves Takes Charge," which can be found in Carry On, Jeeves.
[And like a few other books I've recommended this summer, the Jeeves & Wooster stories have been adapted for the (small) screen, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster. You can find them on Netflix and YouTube. But, as always, the books are better!]
Stephen Fry once said of Wodehouse: “I have written it before and am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today -- whatever that may be. In my teenage years, his writings awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that, he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.”
The FHG Library carries a few of Wodehouse's novels -- check the call number Wod W838 in the fiction section on the 2nd floor.
Buy from Amazon or check your local public library.