Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Big Book of Irony by Jon Winokur

Utah will never, ever be ironic.

Jon Winokur's The Big Book of Irony is about eight inches by five inches, and 150 pages long. I probably should have anticipated that when I put it on my Amazon wishlist, but maybe I'm not a very accomplished ironist.

I wanted to read this book because I wanted to start planning a unit on irony (and satire, parody, and comedy) for my AP English class focusing on The Importance of Being Earnest and Pride and Prejudice. The Big Book of Irony fails to make this task any simpler--Winokur obstinately refuses to support one definition of irony over another, preferring to embrace its essential undefinability.

On the other hand, for a slim book, it provides a wealth of examples that I can use, since Winokur's method is essentially to collect as many quotations and examples of irony as possible. This approach lends itself to sloppiness--for example, Winokur basically repeats identical observations on the finale of Seinfeld in separate sections, once as his own and once as a quotation from Slate's Michael Hirschorn. Elsewhere he repeats Kenneth Wilson's bizarrely mistaken claim that the separation-prone Quebecois may be offended by the name of the Vancouver Canucks (which can be considered disparaging) while their own hockey team sports the "all-Canadian name of Maple Leafs." (The Maple Leafs represent Toronto, which is in Ontario.)

But it also seems overwhelmingly comprehensive. The best parts are a section of short biographies of those Winokur considers master ironists (perhaps the only list ever compiled comprising both Jane Austen and Sarah Silverman) and a section of real-life examples of situational irony:

During the filming of an episode of TV's Homicide: Life on the Street, a fleeing shoplifter blundered onto the set, saw the show's actors with their guns drawn, dropped the loot, and surrendered to them, thinking they were actual policemen.

Winokur also includes compilations of quotations entitled "Against Irony" and "In Defense of Irony" without comment, though it's pretty clear where Winokur comes down when he makes observations like, "Brutal dictators are irony-defiicient--take Hitler, Kim Jong-il, and Saddam Hussein, a world-class vulgarian whose art collection consisted of kitsch paintings displayed unironically." On that note, I'll leave you with this actual "art" piece from Hussein's collection:

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