This short book is more treat than treatise, an ideal gift for someone with a sense of humour but only a gentle desire to explore it. Jim Holt, a New Yorker regular, gives us a history of jokes and joke-collectors illuminated with esoteric and eccentric detail. We learn about Poggio Bracciolini, the 15th-century papal secretary who used or abused his position to compile the Facetiae, Europe's first "joke book" (largely about sex and scandalous vices among churchmen). We follow the persecution of Gershon Legman, author of The Rationale of the Dirty Joke ("like being trapped in the men's room of a Greyhound bus station", Holt tells us), for which he was monitored by the FBI. And we hear how Nat Schmulowitz, the unfunny, joke-loving lawyer who defended the comedian Fatty Arbuckle on charges of murdering an actress in an orgy, bequeathed to the world its second-largest collection of humorous memorabilia.
The second half of the book, on the philosophy of jokes, is a swift but thought-provoking tour of some prominent theories. Kant thought humour came from our delight in incongruity; however, medics from the University of California, Los Angeles may have found a way to prompt the brain to perceive humour in anything. We hear of those jokes that subvert the "inner censor" (Freud) and jokes that provoked various public censors (Hitler, Stalin, St Paul).
The book is lumbered with an unfortunate subtitle that inevitably invites large expectations. But Holt's is a slim volume. Yes, it is possible to do a lot with a little - Ted Cohen's excellent Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters is roughly the same size but punches well above its weight. Holt's work, in contrast, is driven by his personal obsessions; this is both the book's strength, in the droll and quirky details it offers, but also the source of its weakness. Comic masters such as Aristophanes, Juvenal, Rabelais and Chaucer are simply not mentioned, and swaths of human civilisation are largely ignored: there is no curiosity about jokes from Asia, Africa, Australasia or South America - that is, most of the world - in the past 2,000 years.
There is a nod to The Arabian Nights, but even this is slight, and comes through an English joke told by John Aubrey: "[The] Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart." This, Holt remarks, makes an even earlier appearance in the story "How Abu Hassan Brake Wind".
Holt's history is also peculiarly male and peculiarly white. There is nothing from women or black comedians. He has a nice line in Jewish jokes and deploys some great ones here, but other gems are omitted ("Jewish mother running along beach: 'Help, my son the doctor is drowning!'") and Woody Allen doesn't even get a name-check. These gaps are frustrating and ensure that the book doesn't live up to its encyclopaedic title - but then, what could?