There’s a slight snobbishness, in some circles, that says you’re not supposed to laugh at books. Films? Sure. Comedians? Of course. The faces people make before they sneeze? Undoubtedly. But books? Books are a sacred and solemn matter. 

If that rings true to you, then the problem is simple: you’re not reading the right books. Because a genuinely funny book will unfurrow your brow, soften your stiff upper lip and make you laugh loud and proud whether you want to or not. And what better time to cosy up with a hilarious book than Christmas, when the days are filled with cracker jokes and leftovers? Whether a gift for yourself or a loved one, a funny read makes for a great stocking-filler.

To prove our point, here is a selection of some of the funniest titles ever written to make you cackle, snort, giggle or titter, whether you’re on a train, in a library, or just at home with your cat.

Don’t Laugh, It’ll Only Encourage Her by Daisy May Cooper (2021)

Daisy May Cooper has risen to the top of modern comedy hierarchy for her co-creation of This Country, in which she plays the fascinating imbecile Kerry Mucklow. Her debut book tells the similarly amusing story of how she got there – from signing onto the dole to Bafta-winning stardom. Before that, though, there’s the lesser-known Cooper – namely, trying to find the spotlight while “staggering my way though adolescence like a pissed-up butterfly”. You know it’ll be good.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

There’s a side-story in Scoop where a journalist is dispatched by train to cover a revolution in the Balkan states. He falls asleep and wakes in the wrong country and, oblivious to his mistake, heads straight for a hotel where he "[cables] off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter". Despite it being totally made up, his story spurs a Fleet Street feeding frenzy for his phantom revolution, sparking a real one in its place. "There," Waugh concludes, "is the power of the press for you."

You won’t read a more astute satire of Her Majesty’s Press than Scoop, in which a newspaper mistakenly dispatches its mild-mannered nature columnist to cover a war (because he shares a surname with the paper’s star-reporter) and accidentally lands the scoop of the year. Full of technicolour characters and pinpoint persiflage, it lampoons the absurdity of 20th century journalism of what is widely acknowledged as the unrivalled masterpiece of Fleet Street takedowns.

My Lifey by Paddy McGuinness (2021)

Before he was racing cars on Top Gear, Paddy McGuinness was sleeping in them. In his first memoir, comedian and television presenter makes a series of revelations that, altogether, reflect “a lifey well-lived”: here, McGuinness travels from a terrace in 1970s Bolton to successful gigs all over the world, from sleeping on a mattress dragged in from outside and struggling to support his mum all the way to hosting one of Britain’s most beloved shows. My Lifey might be packed with anecdotes that demonstrate his signature “wit and grit”, but its chock full of sincerity and vulnerability, too, making for a read that’s as inspiring as it is hilarious.

The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell (2021)

There’s plenty about motherhood that will make you laugh – and cry – but what about the stage before it, when you don’t even know if you want children, let alone attempt to imagine having them. Properly funny journalist Nell Frizzell is on fine form in this memoir dedicated to what she calls, astutely, “The Panic Years”. Whether you’re a mother, a partner, a friend or a colleague, it’s likely you’ll find something in here to laugh at.

You’ve Got to Laugh by Alison Hammond (2021)

Former Big Brother contestant-turned-national treasure Alison Hammond has won an adoring audience for injecting hilarity into the safe realm of daytime TV (her interview with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford is the stuff of legend), so it’s no surprise that her memoir is stuffed full of laughs – quite literally, as Hammond reflects on laughter that has shaped her life. In this sparkling memoir, she winningly writes about the loves and losses that have made her while leaving the reader with an irresistible zeal for life.

Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse (1925)

No writer better conjures a specific period in history than P. G. Wodehouse. His name alone is synonymous with a vanished time of upper-class Edwardian England, when wars were won on cups of tea, cricket ruled the waves, and lunch was always soup and fish. And yet, his stories – and humour – are timeless.

Of them, none are funnier than those of bumbling Bertie Wooster and his bacon-saving butler Jeeves. Carry On, Jeeves starts the journey of Bertie, the what-hoing toff who, time and again, falls into the soup, only for Jeeves to fish him out. The Jeeves-Wooster relationship has a comic energy like none you’ll read again.

But it is his one-liners, more than his characters, that have stood the test of time. Such as this, the best-ever description of the crepuscular charm of the end of a warm day: "It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away."

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (2006)

Nora Ephron doesn’t like her neck, and that’s the premise to the opener of this delectably dry collection of essays by the brain behind When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. It’s really an ode to getting older, gracefully or not.

With searing self-mockery, she delivers her hard-earned truths on all angles of womanhood, from why she hates her purse ("You start small … but within seconds, your purse has accumulated the debris of a lifetime"), to the joys of having children ("When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you").

She covers cookery, inner-city living, ageing, and reversing it, not to mention was it like as an intern in JFK’s White House ("I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House that the President did not make a pass at").

It is an unstoppably frank, jaw-achingly funny and moving masterclass on how to laugh at yourself. By the time it’s over, you’ll definitely want to have what she’s having.

That Moment When by Mo Gilligan (2021)

Sometimes it feels like celebrities come fully formed: Mo Gilligan, in particular, is so naturally funny and charming that it can feel like he was simply born for success. But in this hilarious, often poignant memoir, subtitled Life Stories from Way Back Then, Gilligan opens up about the moments in his life – long before his online comedy videos sprung him to national, then international fame – that made him who he is today. From memories of growing up in South London and his school days to early comedy gigs and learning to cope with fame, Gilligan weaves a heart-warming story of comedy, careers and community.

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes (2020)

There are few modern writers more effortlessly funny than Marian Keyes, and the Irish writer is never better than in her tragicomic family epic, Grown Ups. Her latest novel, about the secrets families keep and the intense pressures of social mores, follows Johnny and Jessie Casey, whose ongoing masquerade as a perfect family is upended when Johnny’s sister-in-law suffers a concussion and begins to spill the secrets kept between the two sets of Caseys.

The messy and hilarious aftermath between the young families forces them – and, in Keyes’ typically relatable style, forces readers too – to confront their lives. It’s a complex, tangled portrait of humanity, as heartbreakingly poignant as it is riotously funny – and perhaps Keyes’ best work yet.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

If you want to read the funniest description of a hangover ever put to paper, read Lucky Jim. It’s too long to reproduce here wholesale, but includes the immortal (if not gut-churning) words: "His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum."

Kingsley Amis had a wicked sense of humour, and Lucky Jim is his greatest gag. It’s a campus novel about a misanthropic history lecturer who’s accidentally landed a job at a red-brick university. He doesn’t fit. He hates the world he’s fallen into, and would far rather flirt and drink than suffer the intolerable pomposity of academic life. So he is forced to do both.

Lucky Jim is a lethal satire of cloistered academic life and the idiocies, pedantries, stupid rules and unpleasant personal habits with which humanity is cursed, and for which Amis had no time. But more than that, it is a declaration of war on the dark forces of boredom. And for Amis, humour is his deadliest weapon.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne (2021)

Considering the omnipresent grip social media and smartphones have on our lives, it’s sometimes surprising that they don’t attract more mirth. Enter John Boyne, an author known for his razor-sharp observation and crackling humour, who has perfectly skewered influencer and cancel culture, millennial image obsession and a world dependent on digital influence in this searing novel. You’ll laugh, and then want to uninstall Instagram.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend (1982)

Not for nothing was this one of the biggest-selling books of the 1980s. From the confines of his parents' Leicester semi, Adrian Mole – the Pepys of modern Leicestershire – records his melancholy musings, lonely obsessions, the slow growth of his 'thing' and the 'funny feelings' he gets when he thinks about the wobbling chest of his life's great love, Pandora Braithwaite.

But Townsend’s genius lay not only in her sly social observations and weirdly-accurate insight into the mind of a teenage boy, but her genius for one-liners like: "My skin is dead good. I think it must be a combination of being in love and Lucozade." Or: "I have realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac."

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris (2021)

Ah, fragile masculinity. Joshua Ferris brings a masterful touch to one of comedy’s best-loved subjects in this poignant and witty novel. When Charlie Barnes’ millennial son forces him to re-assess his Mad Men-era persona – newspaper and landline – through the lenses of his offspring, his wive(s), his friends and business clients, he is left trying to rethink his life – with entertaining consequences.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (1999)

One of the most written about books in modern British literature, White Teeth is Zadie Smith's widely ambitious saga about two boys rebelling against their families as they try to figure out who they are in a world riven by racial and cultural differences.

Bouncing back and forth between the Second World War and the 1990s, it covers a phantasmagoria of subjects, from war to friendship, family to love, racial identity to belonging (and much more in between). In short, White Teeth is a rollercoaster of a book. But unlike what can happen in novels with interweaving storylines spanning a long period of time, all are equally spellbinding – and equally hilarious, too.

White Teeth ultimately squares up to the two questions which nibble away at the very roots of modern life: Who are we? Why are we here? And why on Earth can’t we all just be friends? The answer is never simple, but here’s a stab: hope is everything, laughter helps, and anything is possible. 

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie (1947)

Comedy has been through dozens of iterations since Compton Mackenzie was a household name, but some kinds of humour never stop being funny. Whisky Galore is a rip-roaring comedy of island life, smuggling and the titular booze. Even better, it’s based on a real story: in 1941, 28,000 cases of whisky ended up bobbing around on the water when the cargo ship in question ran aground.

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (2020)

In her debut novel, author Eley Williams treats words like playthings, in the best possible way; The Liar’s Dictionary is an adventure playground for lovers of letters, a cornucopia of clever wordplay and astute observation.

In parallel narratives happening over a century apart but both set in London, meek lexicologist Peter Winceworth is helping to build Swansby’s dictionary in the 19th Century – not quite Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English – and inserting mountweazels, deliberately false word entries that serve as copyright traps for potential plagiarists, and overdoing it; in the 21st, intern Mallory is tasked with finding them. Along the way, Williams careens boisterously through the English language, all the while evoking truths about the nature of it: the way it can define and illuminate life, as well as its evolution and dizzying arbitrariness.

The Liar’s Dictionary is whimsical without being silly; perfect for a laugh, but never a laughing matter.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

Poor Tristram Shandy. If it weren't for his mother asking his father if he'd remember to wind the clock during the key stage of his conception, he might not have had such a bum deal in life. Or perhaps it was the foolish 'man-midwife' who crushed his nose with the forceps at birth. Or the chambermaid who inadvertently circumcised him with a sash window.

Provocative, profane and utterly preposterous, Tristram Shandy is a novel about a man trying to make sense of his life, foraging through his family history to understand his own fate. Trouble is, he has a crippling weakness for digression (at one point he discovers with mock-horror that, 200 pages into his novel, he has got "no farther than to my first day's life").

Two and a half centuries after Stern published Tristram Shandy, it has lost none of its verve – one of the most inimitable, inventive, witty and delightfully conversational novels ever written.

The Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang (2016)

Charles Wang was a wealthy Chinese-American make-up tycoon until the 2008 financial crisis blew up in his face. Now he’s broke and in a funk. So he takes his wife and three very-different teenage kids on a road trip across America to reconnect with each other. But what starts as a road trip turns into a roots trip. They end up in China.

Chang’s richly comic first novel is a wild ride: funny, endearing, wide-eyed and endlessly clever. It is a comedy about racial identity and belonging and what it is to call a place home.

But it is also a sweet and sprawling family adventure that unflinchingly skewers all the lazy cliches and stereotypes that pigeonhole Asian Americans with a lightness of touch that proves struggling with identity doesn’t have to be heavy. It can be funny and weird, especially when a family struggles through it together. 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

Simply, the most famous comedy science-fiction book ever written (not a great deal of competition in that genre, granted). In many ways, The Hitchhiker's Guide... is a literary genre unto itself: piercingly mischievous, squintingly ironic, keenly observant and beautifully idealistic… and all set in space.

In an electron shell, it’s about a man called Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who wander the galaxy after the Earth is blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. They meet various characters along the way, including a manically depressed robot who saves their lives by striking up a casual conversation with the enemy spaceship’s computer and thereby unintentionally talking it into depression and then suicide.

Originally a radio comedy broadcast on BBC radio 4 in 1978 (available as an audiobook, left), it is a work of prescient genius from one of the most extraordinary imaginations ever to put pen to paper. It is also a weapons-grade satire, riddled with metaphors, mainly for humanity’s many failings and hypocrisies.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978)

The nine novels Armistead Maupin wrote and released over the course of three decades are many things: heart-soaring, revelatory, comforting and revolutionary. But they’re also very, very funny. The sprawling chosen families found and lost in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ scene at a time of great love, life and trauma are well-versed in quick wit and knowing observation. Start with Tales of… then treat yourself to the rest.

Don't Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli (1973)

The first of Bonfiglioli’s hugely-popular Mortdecai novels, Don't Point That Thing at Me introduces the self-described "portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer" – unwilling assassin, insatiable epicurean and unapologetic dandy with a lumbering ex-con babysitter named Jock.

His archenemy is Martland, a policeman of questionable ethics, whose imaginative use of jump leads as interrogation tools will leave you wincing long into the night (not for no reason did author Julian Barnes call the book "a rare mixture of wit and imaginative unpleasantness").

And while it is a riotous blend of comedy, crime and suspense, Bonfiglioli’s real weapon of choice is his imperious ability to turn a phrase. Take the moment he watches enchanted as Mrs Spon turns on a character: "I had heard of her talents in that direction but had never before been privileged to hear her unlock the word bag. It was a literary and emotional feast."

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995)

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Bryson proved – joyfully and definitively – that it takes an outsider to see the truth about where you live. 

Notes From a Small Island was – still is – as endearing a portrait of Britain’s downright weirdness as you could hope to find. Bryson had lived here for 20 years when he wrote it. But before he returned to America, he decided to take one last turn of the place. What resulted was an open love letter to the country that produced Marmite, where judges wear "little mops on their heads" and where people call complete strangers "mate" or "love" ("I hadn't been here twelve hours and already they loved me").

It inveigled itself into our hearts, and stayed there, as the nation’s most-loved book ever written about Britain. Why? Because it’s bleeding hilarious, is why!

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling (2011)

When Salman Rushdie tweeted Mindy Kaling to congratulate her on the wild success of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, she replied: "It goes without saying, I loved your cameo in the Bridget Jones movie."

This is the irreverence that has won her an audience of millions on the social media platform, not to mention heavy plaudits from every actor, comedian and newspaper reviewer who has bothered to read her book, which is exactly the same vein.

Described by The New York Times as Tina Fey’s "cool little sister. Or perhaps… the next Nora Ephron", this collection of stories is one part memoir, two parts brain dump, and all parts hilarity. Kaling's tongue never leaves her cheek as she tackles topics like weight, race, consumer culture and Hollywood’s obsession with conventional beauty with a breezy frankness few such memoirs come as close to mastering.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K Jerome (1889)

It wasn’t meant to be funny. The author said that himself. It was meant to be a serious travel guide of England’s busiest river. But in the end, it just was: a foghorn of a comedy about, well, not much more than what the title says.

Three men, all city clerks, set off down the Thames river with a dog called Montmorency. What follows are a series of mishaps and mistakes to do with tow ropes, the weather or bagpipes, all tempered by a rollicking feast of anecdotes and observations about life, not all of which are strictly relevant to the central story. This includes for our money one of the greatest comic scenes ever written down, involving grievous violence against a tin of pineapple, some blood, and a vision of the Devil.

Between the Covers by Jilly Cooper (2021)

Humour is not in short supply in any of Jilly Cooper’s writing, but before she was icing the Rutshire Chronicles with gags about infidelity, sex, socialising and weekends away, she was writing breathlessly funny columns about such matters. Brilliantly, such copy has been compiled in Between the Covers, a truly joyful smorgasboard of early-era Jilly. Yes please.

Diary of a Drag Queen by Crystal Rasmussen (2019)

Before Crystal was Crystal she was Tom, born in a tough town full of tough men and even tougher women. Quite how, many years later, they found themselves indulging in the pleasures of the night with a 79-year-old builder before knocking over his sister's ashes while trying to feed him a Viagra is truly a story to behold.

Then there’s the time they... actually, it’s better you read her other stories for yourself. Bohemian, yes, but Rasmussen's stories are anything but a drag – they're funny, heartfelt and so lurid they should come with a free defibrillator. But more than that, they are shatteringly honest. Because their life hasn’t all been big-heels and butterfly eyelashes. There have been dark times, too. 

Poetic, idiosyncratic, and neck-achingly funny, this is the story of how Rasmussen set their "glam and gorj" inner diva free.

Reasons to Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe (2019)

Nina Stibbe has mastered the balance of pathos and humour, so it’s hard to recommend just one of her books. But Reasons to Be Cheerful perhaps best exemplifies her acute ability to revel in the inherent absurdity of everyday life.

Stibbe’s most recent novel follows teenager Lizzie Vogel, whose new job as a dental assistant seems to promise independence until it doesn’t. Rather, Reasons to Be Cheerful revels in the youthful, mundane heartbreak of realising that independence doesn’t equate to freedom. She’s still tied to her alcoholic mother, her sexless boyfriend, and the seemingly endless parade of small tragedies (foot fungus, a tactless boss) that life can sometimes be.

Insightful and comic in equal measure, Reasons to Be Cheerful might just turn your bad day into a hysterical one.

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