Three Men in a Boat

To Say Nothing of the Dog

This book is a staple for me. I always have at least three copies; one to travel with, one to give away, and one to keep at home because I always give away both copies. I've found this book in libraries and used book stores in nearly every English speaking country I've ever visited.


Do not expect a plot: there isn't one. Three Men in a Boat (to say Nothing of the Dog) is a series of anecdotes ranging from lyrical flights of fancy to gut bustingly funny. The book follows the maundering journey of three friends on a holiday river cruise along the Thames. Published in the late 1880's, the humor and wisdom are entirely applicable today.


For best effect read out loud, and do all the voices.


The first time I read it was on a long road trip through Saskatchewan, Canada, and I didn't know it was going to be funny. But from the chapter heading all the way through the first page, I felt a bubble of laughter growing in my chest. At this point it was good I wasn't reading out loud, because the laughter grew, squeezing my heart against my ribs and crowding my lungs until they were fit to burst. And then they did.


Just read the heading for the first chapter:

"Three invalids.—Sufferings of George and Harris.—A victim to one hundred and seven fatal maladies.—Useful prescriptions.—Cure for liver complaint in children.—We agree that we are overworked, and need rest.—A week on the rolling deep?—George suggests the River.—Montmorency lodges an objection.—Original motion carried by majority of three to one."


Jerome K. Jerome writes with the tone of a friend slyly letting you in on a joke, only to reveal that you're the punchline. Individual lines may not be funny; taken out of context, they inspire only a mild sense of curiosity. But each anecdote is laced with emotion, whether humor or awe, contentment or frustration, and build to a breaking point. At which time the reader can't help but think of their own experiences, somehow singular, and yet exactly as the author has described.


Well, once I started laughing I couldn't stop. My travel companions asked what was funny, so I told them. They didn't get it, so I read it out loud. After the first anecdote they demanded more. We drove the Trans-Canada highway while George, Harris, J, and Montmorency rowed along the Thames. They were our companions and our counterparts. Breathless with laughter, the driver had to pull over more than once. After every anecdote someone would say "I've done that!" Followed by our own accounts of setting up tents in a storm, or trying to open a can without a tin-opener. We finished the book together, and then immediately tried to find our favorite sections and read them over again.


"The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style, or in the extent and usefulness of the information it conveys, as in its simple truthfulness."

The first line of the forward, quoted above, conveys all you need to know about Three Men in a Boat. It is a classic because the simple truthfulness of it lingers like the stench of a strong cheese. Even once it dissipates, it is impossible to forget.


I read Three Men in a Boat on my own at least once a year, but it is best read in public while waiting for a bus, train, or plane. It's become something of a tradition, at first unintentional but now much sought out, to pick an anecdote and see how long it takes before a stranger asks what I'm laughing at. Then I'll read it out loud until they're laughing too, whether at me or the book doesn't matter.


Most books make me cranky; I love books too well to bear interruption. The house could be on fire, but don't expect me to thank you for saving my life if you left my book behind.

Three Men in a Boat reminds us that we share other experiences, and bonds our souls with humor. Everyone knows a George, who can't read a map if his life depends on it. or a Harris, who can't remember any part of a joke but the punch line. Jerome K. Jerome's work puts me in pleasant frame of mind. It reminds me that the disasters and complications that accompany our mortal travels will someday be the best part of the story.


So, I leave you with some of JKJ's sweet wisdom, as applicable today as it was 131 years ago.

“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. ”

Happy reading.

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