To Say Nothing of the Dog

Whenever I’ve mentioned Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 classic, Three men in a boat (to say nothing of the dog), a small chorus of readers entreated urged me to read Connie Willis’ science fiction book To Say Nothing of the Dog.

This chorus included readers I trust, those with whom I share a kinship in books. But, really. Look at the cover. I ask you: would you feel compelled to read this book? And when was the last time I read science fiction? I just don’t have the stamina or brain power to keep all the galaxies and unfamiliar creatures straight.

But I have a personal reading philosophy: deep and wide. I choose to read a few books that require patience and effort. Similarly, I like to widen the scope of my reading so I’m not stuck in one genre, one century, or one culture.

So.

I read the book.

And, dear chorus of friends, dear ones…I LOVED IT.

How can an author born in 1945 write so timelessly? With such humor and grace?

And how does one describe this book? The story is set in Oxford in 2057. Historians use a time travel machine to research historical periods. They are not allowed to change history. Ned, a specialist in 20th century history, is transported to 19th century Victorian England. So the book is much more Victorian, more literary than sci-fi. As he mingles and converses with Victorian-era people, Ned runs his thoughts through a mental screen to see if they would make sense. Before he can reference a poem, a piece of music, or an historical fact, he must make sure it is truly historical to 1888.

My delight gurgled when Ned is boating down the Thames with Terence, an Oxford student he met, and he sees three men in a boat, and breaks the cardinal rule of time-travel behavior.

“It is them! I said. “Terence, do you know who that is? It’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog.”

“Dog?” Terence said contemptuously. “You call that a dog?” He looked fondly at Cyril, who was snoring in the bottom of the boat. “Cyril could swallow him in one bite.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It’s the Three Men in a Boat. The tin of pineapple and George’s banjo and the maze.”

“The maze?” Terence said blankly.

“Yes, you know, Harris went in the Hampton Court Maze with this map and all these people followed him and the map didn’t work and they got hopelessly lost and they had to call out for the keeper to come and get them out.”

I leaned out for a better look. There they were, Jerome K. Jerome and the two friends he had immortalized (to say nothing of the dog) on that historic trip up the Thames. They had no idea they were going to be famous a hundred and fifty years from now, that their adventures with the cheese and the steam launch and the swans would be read by countless generations.

Each chapter has a dozen or so sub-headers listed at the beginning, the kind of delightful detail one seldom sees in modern books. Here’s an example from Chapter Seven:

Importance of Locks in the Victorian Era—”Loose lips sink
ships”—Tristan and Isolde—Pursuit—The French Revolution—An
Argument Against Tipping—A Traumatized Cat—Soot—The Bataan
Death March—Sleep—The Boat Is Found at Last—An Unexpected
Development—Importance of Meetings to History—Lennon and
McCartney—I Search for a Tin-Opener—What I Found

If you are an Anglophile, if you like Jeeves, Holmes, Jerome, Chesterton or Agatha, you would enjoy this book. If you like books with the interjections Pshaw! Balderdash! and Rubbish!, you’ll like this one. It isn’t necessary to have first read JKJ’s Three Men to enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I recommend you read it sometime. Here is a generous sampling of quotes from Three Men

Connie Willis has made me eager to read more science fiction. I want to re-read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and I definitely want to read more Connie Willis.

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9 thoughts on “To Say Nothing of the Dog

  1. JUST finished rereading Three Men in a Boat, and have also been urged repeatedly by my daughter to read To Say Nothing of the Dog. I will definitely add it to my list now that it has your stamp of approval also!

  2. I am SO GLAD you liked it!  There’s nothing worse than fervently recommending a book to someone only to learn later that she didn’t like it after all.  I tell people not to be put off by the sci-fi genre, that it’s more historical and literary than sci-fi.  I just finished re-listening to the Recorded Books version, which is narrated fabulously by Steven Crossley.  This book always makes me laugh out loud!

  3. You’re right about the cover. I’m glad, too, that you liked the book. Your next Connie Willis should be Doomsday Book, then the two volume WWII time travel novel, Blackout and All Clear. I’ll warn you that these are not as light-hearted as TSNOTD, but they’re just as delightful and thought-provoking. Ignore all off-putting covers.

  4. Oh Carol, sci-fi is the last genre in the world that I have ever wanted to read, and now you have me at least thinking about it. How could you??? I see that the others who have commented have already read it and highly recommend more Connie Willis. I will have to put Three Men…on my wish list. I will think about it anyway! One way or another, my dear, you continue to stretch my horizons.

  5. Amd then of course i had to check it out on Amazon. Too pricey for the time being. Looked at Thriftbooks – several copies available for $3.96 (hardback) and free shipping. Can’t beat that so of course I ordered one. Will let you know more when I actually get to reading it. Right now I am reading Sword of Imagination and it is fascinating but not by any means a fast or easy read. Seems that Russell Kirk spent his years in the Army (WW2) right out here in the Utah desert not far from where I live now. Small world, eh?

  6. And now I have read on in Kirk and find that he spent a TDY assignment in the very part of Florida where I lived for 20 years! Just down the road. I told Dave and he couldn’t believe it either. Of course all this was during the 2nd World War so several years before we went there to live.

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