Bob Mankoff, New Yorker cartoon editor, wants to learn

Michele McDonald

Bob Mankoff submitted 500 cartoons to The New Yorker before the magazine accepted one. A high tolerance for rejection paid off for Mankoff in the end. He’s been the cartoon editor since 1997, the highs and lows of which he recounts in his recent memoir, “How About Never — Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons.” You’ll find Mankoff at this year’s Boston Book Festival. He speaks Oct. 24, at 4 p.m., at the Trinity Sanctuary, 206 Clarendon St.

BOOKS: What are you reading for the college classes you teach on humor?

MANKOFF: When I’m teaching I’ll read textbooks analyzing humor, like “What Are You Laughing At?” by Dan O’Shannon, who writes for the TV sitcom “Modern Family.’’ Then I’ll read Greek comedy, like Aristophanes. It’s mostly wonky stuff. I’ll also read popular books, like Steve Martin’s, “Born Standing Up,” a really good book about how comedy works. I just finished “So, Anyway . . . ” by John Cleese, which had a lot of interesting details. I read all sorts of crazy books, such as “The Smile Revolution: In Eighteenth Century Paris” by Colin Jones. We assume that smiling and laughter is natural. It wasn’t always thought of that way.


BOOKS: What do you like to read for enjoyment?

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MANKOFF: I read for enjoyment but not fiction. I can’t even understand what’s happening on TV so novels are totally beyond me. I did read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy because I like any apocalyptic thing. My underlying thing is I don’t want to be entertained. I want to learn something. I feel not reading fiction is a failing because sometimes when I do read fiction I learn about humanity in a broad sense. Yet I’m antsy. When I taught this honors colloquium at the University of Rhode Island I advised the students to expose themselves to things they don’t like or don’t tend toward. I should take my own advice and read some fiction.

BOOKS: What nonfiction have you read that you liked?

MANKOFF: I read David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers,” which was really interesting. I like to connect things so I also read “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, which basically looks at the future of work as machines do more and more cognitive tasks. I like to read about people’s lives. I’ll read almost anything on Lincoln. I also read “The Arsenal of Democracy” by A.J. Baime about Henry and Edsel Ford and how they did for armaments what they had done for the Model T, which is how we won the war.

BOOKS: What else do you like to read?


MANKOFF: I do a lot of book-review reading. Often I read an intelligent review and realize, “I pretty much got it.” There’s this very good book called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” by Pierre Bayard. My wife makes fun of me because I will talk about anything I have only a scintilla of knowledge about. She’ll say, “You only read a review of that book.”

BOOKS: What kind of book would you never pick up?

MANKOFF: Whatever is the book equivalent of a chick flick is something I would avoid, partly because really nuanced relationships are lost on me. I’m oblivious to them in life. I won’t read something like “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo because it’s not. I don’t want to a read a book where every page I think, “How can you be so stupid?”

BOOKS: Paper or screen?

MANKOFF: I have the Kindle app on my phone, my iPad, and my computer. I also have an actual Kindle. Having these books on all these devices leads to a type of channel surfing. But I think I read more than ever before because reading wasn’t always as accessible everywhere. I also find reading on devices gives you a little boost when you go back to a regular book because it’s so pleasant. It feels like less pressure.



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