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By John Wilson, Managing Editor


In the magazine world the end of the year always brings a generous harvest of readers' recommendations, word-of-mouth in print: they select, from the last 12 months, the books that most forcefully stand out in memory, sometimes including an unheralded treasure you might have missed.

It's in that spirit that I bring to your attention "Barry Sanders's Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History" (Beacon, 328 pp.; $27.50). Sanders's book is a cultural history of attitudes toward laughter from antiquity to the present (backed up by a 40-page bibliography). For Aristotle, Sanders reminds us, laughter "separates human beings so conclusively from the rest of the animals that [he] chose to refer to us creatures as animal ridens, 'the beast who laughs.' " If that Aristotelian emphasis strikes you as merely quaint, Sudden Glory will change your mind, so rich is its exploration of the meaning of laughter. (Sanders can be heard talking about his previous book, "A Is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age," just out in paperback [Vintage, 288 pp.; $12], on the September/October 1995 issue of the Mars Hill Tapes.)

Space doesn't permit us here to follow the twists and turns of Sanders's argument (and there is plenty to argue with), but one salient theme seems particularly pertinent to questions we'll be wrestling with in B&C. The church figures prominently in Sanders's account as a repressive force, seeking to subdue laughter. Quoting dour authorities from Basil the Great in the fourth century ("The Christian … ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh-makers") to Hugh of Saint Victor in the twelfth century ("Joy may be good or evil, depending on its source, but laughter is in every respect evil"), Sanders suggests that this negative attitude toward laughter derived in part from "the sobriety of Christ" taken as a model for the Christian life ("serious, solemn, devoid of any trace of joyous laughter"), in part from authority's perennial ...

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