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Why are some things funny and some aren't? Why do we laugh at a joke at one time but not the other? What mechanisms lie behind humor and wit? If you have ever pondered these questions and want a detailed and exhaustive answer, then the book "Laughing: A Psychology of Humor" by Norman N. Holland is for you.
Norman's enthralling style of writing and his attention to details while being able to build a broad picture makes the book well-worth reading. Without being excessively specialized and hard to read like many books of this kind get, he manages to grasp the topic very precisely and clearly. His language is not overly technical, nor cryptic, and his book is full of humorous remarks and quotations of famous philosophers and comics. The excerpt below gives a feel of the book:
"The comic is hard to understand because it alone, among the arts, has a specific physical reflex associated with it -- laughter. We decide something funny or not by whether we feel like laughing at it, even though we may not laugh out loud. The impulse physically to laugh remains at test. And laughter we distrust."
His book consists of two parts. First part deals with a wide range of existing theories about the comic. It devotes a separate chapter to every major aspect of laughter: stimuli, conditions, psychology, physiology and catharsis. This listing of topics might look a like it was taken from table of contents of a college psychology textbook. And the book might actually be used as an introduction to the course or a source of supporting information. But it is very much different from a conventional textbook. Instead of monotonously presenting the facts, book's tone is quite personal, and the reading of it feels more like listening to a person making an educated and at the same time entertaining conversation about the laughter, than like going over a psychoanalytic psychology course. The book does not present ideas in an obtrusive way, but rather the information flows along where the reader can pick out pieces of interest to him.
The second part of the book reports on some real people laughing. It presents various real-life situations and explains why different persons find it funny or not funny. This section gives a chance to fully understand various theories on laughter and how they work in reality.
The book drew my attention quickly after I started to read it. It presents most of the material in an understandable and entertaining way and poses questions and problems that make the reader think and engage in active reading rather than in passive absorbing of the text. Below, Norman presents a problem of measuring the effect of a joke experimentally:
"To be sure, being doubled over argues more amusement than a thin smile. But does a two-second titter mean twice as much hilarity as a one-second guffaw? Does a loud haw-haw mean the person feels the joke is ten decibels funnier than someone who laughs a tiny hee-hee?"
From the book it is evident that Norman Holland is a very educated person. He gracefully incorporates quotations of people like Socrates, Nietzsche, Marx, Kant, Descartes and others' into the text. Such technique gives a chance to see how famous philosophers perceived laughter and gives chance to compare them to create your own objective view of the subject. I also found it enlightening because I learned something about those people while reading the book.
'Laughter: the psychology of humor' is a also very detailed and comprehensive information resource. After reading it, I found myself being able to recognize psychological elements of laughter in everyday life. Now often when I hear a laugh, I catch myself describing the principles that were responsible for laugh in that case. Here is how he introduces theories on humor:
"I can distinguish four large groups of psychological theories about the comic, based on archetypes, conscious feelings, psychoanalysis, and experiments. They vary widely in the complexity of the answers they give and in the kinds of human laws they presuppose. Unlike the theories based on stimulus and conditions, all psychological theories locate the source of the laughable and laughed-at instead of in the laughed-at alone"
The book has a remarkable re-read value. I can go back and read the book again and again, because each time I read it, I notice something new. Although this book was very interesting for me to read, it does require commitment. It is not a kind of book to be read for entertainment. There are some difficult pieces that go deep down into the technicalities of psychological analysis, but once the reader gets over them, it us a source of satisfaction to be able to understand and apply that information. Because of the kind of material the book covers, I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but only to people who want to know how humor works and are ready to learn something from this book.