Although the origins of the phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’ has been lost in the mists of time, the concept that laughter can be an aid to better physical and mental health has been well-known for centuries. In the bible, the phrase: A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones (1) is an early version of the saying and in the fourteenth century, a French surgeon, Henri de Mondeville, who was appointed as a royal surgeon to King Phillipe and later King Louis X, advised telling jokes to patients who had been through surgery to aid their recovery.
The medicinal benefits of laughter are numerous. Laughing has been proved to trigger physical and emotional changes in the body, which in turn can strengthen your immune system, boost your mood, reduce anxiety and even lessen pain. It is thought that a small amount of time watching comedies for instance (and by association laughing) can sometimes be more beneficial than meditating or listening to calming music. For example, simply viewing an episode of the sitcom Friends has been shown to reduce anxiety three times more effectively than sitting and resting (2).
As part of our Reading for Wellbeing month, we have scoured our collection for the funniest titles we could find to provide you with some laughter. Stories that will make you unfurrow your brow, relax your shoulders, smile from ear to ear and who knows, maybe even giggle out loud. We’ve opened up our virtual apothecary and offer you these little gems as the perfect medicine to cheer up what has been a dismal year.
To start with in our search for humorous books, we went to the trusty classics and our first suggestion is The Catcher in The Rye, by JD Salinger (6427). The coming-of-age book that many of us read at school, it’s not an obvious choice of comic literature, but it has been described by many as influential, cynical,warm and funny. A more obvious laugh-out-loud book that many of us will remember from our childhood is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ bySue Townsend (5438). This is a glance into the hilarious mind of a teenage boy growing up. Adrian Mole is dogged by spots, cracks in his parents' marriage and misfortunes familiar to anyone over the age of 13. This one was the first book in the series and if you love it(and we dare you not to) you’re in for a treat as we also have the rest of the titles in the series available too.
Moving away from the minds of teenagers, but remaining with the classics, we also have Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (11297) and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (10223). In Funny Girl, Barbara Parker is Miss Blackpool of 1964, but she doesn't want to be a beauty queen, she only wants to make people laugh. She lands a life-changing audition for a new BBC comedy series and overnight she becomes Sophie Straw: charming, gorgeous, and destined to win the nation's hearts. But soon the script begins to get a bit too close to home, and life starts imitating art.
In the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm, an orphaned socialite from London, Flora Poste goes to stay with her rural relations, the Starkadders, on their farm. Described by the Sunday Times as ‘Probably the funniest book ever written’, this is a must if you are a fan of farce.
The last of our classics is relatively new in comparison to the others, but it’s wordwidesuccess has, I think, earned itself entry into the category. Written by Helen Fielding in 1994, the brilliant Bridget Jones’s Diary (4925) is funny from the first page to the last. Bridget is everyone's favourite spinster, documenting her struggles through the social minefield of her 30s in her diary. From her weight to her love life, the book perfectly summed up what many of us of a certain age have lived through. If you’ve read it, it’s always worth reading again and for those who haven’t yet been introduced to Bridget – what are you waiting for!
As well as those books that have been around for decades, we found some entertainingly funny modern fiction to give them a run for their money. When looking for brilliant writing with a gentle sense of humour running through the prose, Marian Keyes is always a good place to start. In her book Grown-Ups (13920),Keyes explores the dynamics within a family and the secrets families keep. When one of the characters suffers a concussion, the secrets come tumbling out. Grown-Ups has been described as hilarious and painfully relatable - the perfect escape into someone else's wonderfully messy family.
Whilst remaining with family dynamics, we also have the very funny and very clever Why Mummy Swears by Gill Sims (13310). Subtitled ‘the struggles of an exasperated mum’, it was a Sunday Times Bestseller and it hysterically relatable whether you have children or not.
A book with perhaps more subtle humour that is definitely worth a read is White Teeth by Zadie Smith (1760). The story veers back and forth between the Second World War and the 1990s, and covers a multitude of subjects, including war, family,friendship, racial identity and belonging. This hugely popular book, described as a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, will no doubt become a classic in years to come.
Sometimes books that are funny can also be heartbreakingly sad, making the comedy even more relevant because it lifts the situation, allowing us to see past the bad stuff and to recognise that if you inject a bit of humour into a state of affairs, sometimes it becomes more bearable. Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe (13379) fits this category perfectly. The story of a young girl, Lizzie,who leaves her alcoholic, novel-writing mother and heads for Leicester to work and who finds herself reluctantly, at top speed, hurling towards adult life is a poignant tale of a young girl growing up and realising that being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Red Magazine credit Stibbe as being one of the 'Very few writers [who] can find the delicate balance between heartbreak and hilarity’.
Lastly in this section, I wanted to include ‘How to be a Heroine’ (or What I’ve learnt from reading too much) by Samantha Ellis (10068). This is a funny, touching and light-hearted look at our literary heroines and why we love them so much (or insome cases don’t), how they played a part in all our lives and how they change over time.
Changing direction once again from contemporary fiction to travel, a few books in our collection will not only make you laugh out loud but they’ll also take you on a bit of a journey at the same time.
Starting with C'est La Folie (7996) by Michael Wright, Michael gives us a funny and entertaining story of his move from London to France. It tells of his progress from theatre critic to rugged paysan as he shepherds his sheep, chats with his bilingual chickens and tackles the renovation of his delapidated French home. In a similar vein, Detour De France (8795) by Michael Simkins is also set in France,although the actor is not laying down roots, just expanding his horizons by going on a kind of latter-day Grand Tour to France. This is the entertaining, and often very funny, account of his travels.
If you want to venture further East, then read Fried Eggs With Chopsticks (7509) by Polly Evans, a funny and informative account of the author’s solo journey across China by bus, train and mule. Along the way she learns some kung fu and calligraphy, eats stewed dog and drinks yak-butter tea.
Or taking us full circle, back to the classics, we have Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (10011). In a tale that was meant to be a serious travel guide of the Thames, three men, and their dog set off down the Thames river. The result is a laugh-out loud comedy featuring navigational challenges, culinary disasters, and heroic battles with swans, kettles and tins of pineapple!
We hope that we have managed to make some recommendations of some great titles that are bound to make you laugh, smile and maybe even shed some happy tears along the way. Of course, if none of these pique your interest, you could always find your inner child and delve into some of our brilliantly hilarious children’s offerings such as The Wimpy Kid Diaries, The World of Tom Gates, numerous titles by David Walliams and many many more. But whatever you choose to read, we hope it makes your sides ache and your ribs tickle.