ROFL (Reviewing Our Favourite Literature) is a blog series intended to help you get to know the mysterious faces behind the UBC English Students’ Association. All the execs will share their favourite book or author and this week we are introducing our blog manager, Emily. She is a third-year undergraduate student in the Honours English and is also an editor for The Garden Statuary.
In my Grade 12 yearbook the write-ups from the graduating students ranged from Dr. Seuss quotes to heartfelt messages for loved ones. And then there was mine, which went something like this: “Giraffes are so tall because their ancestors ate the top branches of trees. The shorter Giraffes could not reach the top branches and died off. Why the shorter Giraffes did not eat the tops of shorter trees seems very strange. Perhaps it never occurred to them”. It is a quotation from the American literary critic and humourist, and my personal favourite, Will Cuppy.
Born in Indiana in 1884, Cuppy wrote up until his death in 1949. His work generally consists of short articles on various topics. His first work, How to be a Hermit or A Bachelor Keeps House (1929), provides such useful information as a recipe for condensed milk sandwiches—“slice the bread, open the can of condensed milk with a rusty nail, combine and thank your lucky stars” (71)—and a defence of the bean: “Where would be we without the bean?” Cuppy asks, “Darwin…was a rabid vegetarian, a loyal bean fan. George Bernard Shaw adores beans. William Salt…was inspired to some of his most heroic feats by beans and beans alone” (313).
For the biologically inclined, there is How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931), How to Become Extinct (1941), and How to Attract the Wombat (1949). In addition to his apt commentary on the animal kingdom (humans included!), his works also provide such etymological insights as, “The Great Bustard…from the Greek Bustard, meaning Bustard” (Friends, 59).
If you are friend of neither fish nor fowl, then there is his historical work: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950). Unfinished at Cuppy’s death, but completed and published by his friend Fred Feldkamp, it ranges from the Ancient Egyptians to the British Monarchy with a take on history that only Cuppy could provide. On Atilla the Hun: “[he] was an awful pest, but there are plenty of others. You musn’t blame him for all your troubles, because most of them are your own fault, and the sooner you realize it the better. He has even been blamed for the Fall of Rome, when he wasn’t anywhere near at the time. I forget exactly why Rome fell. It was probably just one of those things” (71-72).
I can say with some degree of confidence that the only time I will ever say ‘Oh, you have to read the footnotes; they’re the best part!’ is while recommending Will Cuppy to anyone and everyone. It’s something you must really see for yourself, but one example is his statement, “The Black stork is a native of Africa”, with a footnote that reads, “The Wood Stork is not so well known because he minds his own business” (Friends, 56).
Reading Will Cuppy is just plain old fun because his writing forces you to laugh at yourself. Sure he may be talking about the hippopotamus or Alexander the Great, but his humour is effective because it targets the most ridiculous aspects of humanity without insulting or shaming the reader. Instead, he provides an outlet for self-critique that ultimately reminds you to loosen up a little; after all, it’s not always worth it to strive for the tops of the tallest trees when the shorter ones will do just fine.