The “Seinfeld” of books??
There's too much T.V. and so much drama!! Enter "Wodehouse Summer," baby
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Television shows — if you ask us, there’s too many of them. Do we enjoy The Bear? Yes, very much (and not only because a bunch of people who make it, including Ebon and Matty, f**k with Blackbird Spyplane). Is Irma Vep cool and compellingly strange? It is. Are we blown away by The Rehearsal, the new series from once-in-a-generation-talent and Spyfriend Nathan Fielder? You already know !
But we are nonetheless “all good when it comes to these shows” at this point, chief !! You don’t need to tell me that Severance is “so good,” or that the Pam and Tommy show is “fun” or the Uber show or the Theranos show or whatever else is “bussin’ on the MF Roku.”
You might be right. We might enjoy whatever mids+ show you are currently enjoying. But it’s a moot point because… we’re not watching that s**t !! We’re full up on “shows we gotta watch.” Except in rare cases of genius, we’ve reached a weird equilibrium in TV where at any given moment there’s some new smart-enough, well-made-enough, well-acted-enough show that we could kill time pleasantly enough by watching — and another new show that checks those same boxes is always just around the corner, the result being that TV programming feels interchangeable and interminable: Since shows are constantly dropping, right into our homes, the demands they make on our time are theoretically infinite, so they threaten to crowd out the other ways we here at BBSP like to pass time in the company of culture, i.e. watching beautiful movies and reading powerful and delightful books !!
“Blackbird Spyplane,” we hear you saying, “you’re right as always, but at the end of the modern, demanding, hustle-bustle day, a ‘50s-era Satyajit Ray slapper on Criterion can feel like a lot, and my brain’s too fried to even contemplate opening a prize-winning book by the visionary king Denis Johnson, even though he’s the GOAT.”
There’s an obvious logic to what you’re saying, but we know yr brains are stronger and craggier than that, Spy Nation…
We do recognize that it can help to have a bridge to lead you out of “t.v. brain” into different pastures… And today we wanna salute a time-honored author who can provide you with one such “bridge” — an author so masterfully breezy, so idiosyncratically funny, and who creates a world so deeply, enjoyably inconsequential, that you might find yrself never wanting the bridge to end…
We are talking about tha early 20th century British humor god P.G. Wodehouse !
Wodehouse books are a perfect bridge out of “t.v. brain” because they are kind of like the Seinfeld of books: They revolve around a few core heroes and recurring side-characters, all of whom have extremely frivolous concerns, manias and problems that they take extremely seriously, which lead them into all manner of low-stakes capers and jams … but instead of ‘90s-era NYC they hang out at private clubs in ‘20s and ‘30s-era London / cool manors in the British countryside.
Erin and I have loved Wodehouse for years, and if you know me (Jonah) I.R.L. there’s a good chance you’ve heard me praising his s**t. I’m not alone. The other day Spyfriend Willy Staley did a tweet about how Wodehouse books are tight. Around the same time, Spyfriend Kaitlin Phillips did an IG story about how she was having a blast reading a d*mn Wodehouse book at a summer house... Not long after that, a tweet from some dude I don’t know went mad viral where the punchline was “what the deuce” —
It was a tweet about Stewie Griffin, but “what the deuce” is the kind of thing ppl say all the time in Wodehouse stories, so by the time I saw this tweet I’d seen enough to call it: It’s officially P.G. Wodehouse Summer.
When you pick up a Wodehouse joint — such as Joy in the Morning or Summer Lightning, two of our favorites — U R rocking with a master. He writes sublime sentences, each one carefully constructed to be as un-boring as possible. On a word-to-word level, no English-language author surpasses him for craft, rhythm, or ear.
A huge part of the delight of reading Wodehouse is submitting yourself to his zigging, zagging clauses, like you are a feather caught in a series of updrafts, wondering, as you float, how he is going to stick the landing — which he always does, in surprising & unpredictable ways. Buried somewhere in the Blackbird Spyplane DNA is my desire to be a fraction as fun to read as he is.
It’s hard to excerpt Wodehouse in a way that communicates the enveloping pleasure of reading him, because, like with many funny writers, the pleasure is an aggregate effect: the more Wodehouse you consume — the more familiar you become with his cadences, his mannerisms, and the small, ridiculous universe he conjures — the exponentially funnier he gets. Doing a recent re-read of Joy in the Morning I was still stonefaced at page 9… but by page 28 ?? Yr boy was “straight guffawing.”
It’s similarly hard to give tantalizing plot synopses, because the plots are just pretexts for jokes … A young cad doesn’t want to get married but his aunt wants him to … A young cad does want to get married but the uncle of the girl he loves thinks he’s a dumb-a** … A doddering rich Lord dotes on his enormous prize pig but the pig gets depressed and stops eating … A large swan attacks two dudes (the young cad Bertram Wooster, and his swag valet, Jeeves) so they have to hide out on the roof of a gazebo (I might be confusing this with the one where Bertie & Jeeves hide from an angry dog on top of an armoire)…
One criticism you sometimes see leveled against Wodehouse gets right to the core of his comforting, escapist appeal: He creates and sequesters you in an insular, oblivious, upper-class world where the ugliness and mess of “real life” is magically kept at bay, to a degree that some people find ethically stunted, if not unethical outright. Wodehouse wrote many of his stories, full of genius, unperturbed inanity, during the rise of fascism, and while fascist characters show up here and there, mocked as buffoonish villains, his books aren’t remotely polemical.
Anthony Lane touched on this tension — between frivolity and fraught history — in a great 2004 Wodehouse appreciation, and in 2020 Rivka Galchen grappled with the tension head on, writing about the time Wodehouse spent in a German internment camp during WWII, after which he did lighthearted radio broadcasts about life in the camp for the German Foreign Office (!) and some Britons accused him of propagandism / traitorousness (he maintained he was just on some of that stiff-upper-lip s**t … it’s complex).
We tend to agree with Galchen when she argues that Wodehouse’s “books are cozier than cozy mysteries, and, like a mystery, they help take one’s mind off real calamities” — and, going further, that his “resilient happiness, to me, remains heroic.” 💯💯💯
She also notes that Wodehouse clearly cared deeply about PANTS, which is another way that he is a kindred Spyplane spirit:
Wodehouse published books prolifically, and (as with tha “slow-cinema” king Yasujiro Ozu), a lot of the titles are very similar, which can feel daunting and disorienting when you’re trying to figure out where to start.
The books that people encouraged me to read first are the ones that I tend to encourage people to read first: Code of the Woosters; Right Ho, Jeeves; Joy in the Morning; Summer Lightning; and Leave it to Psmith.
And if you, like us, suffer from “Collector Brain Worms,” you can amass Wodehouse joints in very handsome matching hardcover editions from Everyman / Overlook Press, new and on eBay, among other places, which look very good together on a bookshelf …
Perhaps bunched between some fantastic hand-made Shane Gabier ceramic bookends??
So tell yr mids-T.V.-addicted friends to chill the f**k out with the recommendations. Stop asking people “durrr what shows R U watching??” when you hang out. Give those “Max Originals” a miss for a minute and “throw on” a Wodehouse instead … (yes there are charming Wodehouse T.V. adaptations starring Spyplane heroes like Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders, but those can wait) !!
Wodehouse Summer will last at least all the way through August, and might even spill into Wodehouse Autumn, because the time is always right to bang with Big P.G., but it feels especially right right now.
🐷🎾 — Jonah & Erin
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Off topic but on the subject of clothes: does House BBSP have any thoughts about raglan shirts? The slanty-sleeve colour blocked baseball t kind that is.
I feel like streetwear has hyped every other kind of tshirt there is - rugby shirts, quarter zips, graphic ts, jerseys, you name it ...but not the raglan, is it that they're torched or are they just so mundane that American people don't even consider them a separate category of shirt or notice them at all? They always read as peak sporty American style to me (non American here) so I'm curious.
Wodehouse is GOAT no matter what the covers look like but my favourites are still the orange-spine Penguin paperbacks which are helpfully not much bigger than a hand and weigh less than a phone.
A++ selections btw, Leave It To Psmith is top tier comedy especially during the Great Flowerpot Attack. Actually, Jeeves gets all the hype (and deserves it! All those trousers and marriage-dodging) but any Blandings book gives him a run for his money, LITP is a great sample but anything with Uncle Fred in it is equally dynamite.