The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.

The Classics Reclamation Project

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome was published in 1889 and tells the story of three friends’ vacation traveling by boat down the Thames. It’s narrated by one of the men, and the trio is based on Jerome and two of his friends. Sadly, this author-book connection does not make me like the book or the author any better.

You know how sometimes one book you’re reading affects your perception or enjoyment of another? Before I go on, let me say that that may have happened in this case, at least partially. I started Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome just as I was finishing up The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and the two books couldn’t have been more different. The former is light and silly, while the latter is dense and serious, a contrast that is not, in and of itself, a problem. But after reading about poverty and hardship and war in The Poisonwood Bible, my tolerance for hearing young Englishmen of comfortable means complain, even teasingly, about the inconvenience of not being able to find room in an inn for the night was extremely low. In another situation it might have amused; instead, it grated.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (audiobook cover)My other issue with the book was not, however, influenced by The Poisonwood Bible. The actual story of the three men in Three Men in a Boat sailing down the Thames takes up about a quarter of the book. The other three quarters are comprised of tangents, ramblings, anecdotes, and historical tidbits supplied by the narrator. Which is fine, I suppose; they were, in their own way, charming and amusing. But the problem I had with Three Men in a Boat is, strangely, similar to the one I had with Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories: I could easily miss parts of the book without missing out on any of the story. In the case of the Alice stories, the plot made no sense to me, so I wasn’t any more lost if I missed a bit here and there. With Three Men in a Boat, the plot was so slow and so stuffed with asides that I probably could have skipped whole chapters without losing the thread of the narrative. I kept listening because the book was part of my classics project (and I didn’t have another audiobook lined up), but had circumstances been different, I’d most likely have abandoned it.

The one thing I really did enjoy about Three Men in a Boat was Montmorency, the dog that accompanied the men on their trip. He was treated like a fourth person, and whenever he popped up, I smiled. His appearances were few and far between, though, and so not enough to redeem the book for me. I should also mention that the book is certainly well written, and for all that it’s rambling and slow, it’s also witty and clever. If you’re in the mood for such things.

I listened to Three Men in a Boat, as I’m finding myself often doing with classics. The version I borrowed from the library was read by Martin Jarvis, who was, as always, spectacular. I had no complaints about the reading; it was the story I disliked. If you’re thinking of trying Three Men in a Boat for yourself, I would highly recommend checking out Jarvis’s reading. Oh…and be sure to read it when you’re feeling a bit silly!

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  1. I actually read it when I was feeling in the mood for something light and humorous, and I gave up after a few chapters. I found that the sense of humor in it just wasn’t my style of humor. I also tried to read, in print, one of his other books, and the humor in there was just as slapstick and in some cases very racist, so I’m concluding that I just don’t like the author very much. Even Martin Jarvis couldn’t save this one for me.

  2. I enjoyed Three Men in a Boat, but I think that was mainly due to the fact that I know the area well and so loved reading the descriptions of how it used to be. The plot and humour did litte for me so I can understand why those not familiar with the area wouldn’t enjoy it.

  3. “I could easily miss parts of the book without missing out on any of the story.” In this one sentence, you clarified why some books don’t do it for me. I can put them down. I can skip. In the end, they don’t “pull” the way a story should.

    A singular exception: Evan S. Connell’s two masterpieces of mid-20th-century realism: Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. After the first few chapters, the short chapters can be read in random order. But they build and build nonetheless.

  4. Erin, I love your discussion of the experience of reading The Poisonwood Bible at the same time. Isn’t it fascinating how our books talk to each other (and sometimes argue)?

    I just picked up the audio of this on hold in the library and am going to give it a try on an upcoming plane flight. I love Jarvis enough that I think I must give this at least a try…

    I’m so glad I am not going in thinking it will be fabulous. That attitude always means I get especially disappointed.

  5. Oh, I am sorry you didn’t like this one! I really liked it when I read it, and I think it’s because I paired it with To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, which was sort of a parody of Three Men in a Boat. It was a silly romp of a read, and I do agree that there are points when you could skip a bit of the text and not miss much, but that didn’t really bother me all that much. Though we had different opinions on this book, I enjoyed hearing your take on it and think you had some very valid points.

  6. I read this one last year and really enjoyed it a lot. I was definitely in the mood for something fun and frivolous, and while I agree that parts of this dragged for me too, I just through it was so absurd that I couldn’t help but laugh. And Montmorency really was so awesome! I definitely intend to read the sequel to this one at some point.

  7. Oh my. Sounds like something very different for me! I’m intrigued though and sometimes I do need something a little on the silly side!

  8. Up until recently I believed that as long as the way the story was told was interesting to me, if the story itself wasn’t so good I didn’t mind so much. But I’ve come to realise that it only works sometimes.

    I think this is a book I’ll avoid if it rambles. I know what you mean about a previous book effecting a current read, I’ve experienced that so many times and it does make you wonder if you’re being fair to the second book, but then if the book isn’t winning you over it’s generally the fault of the book.

  9. I’m embrassed to say I have never heard of this classic. When I saw the title I thought immediately of the nursery rhyme “Three Men in a Tub” and now I cannot get that out of my head!

    I like the premise of the story & love that the fourth person is a dog, though it sounds like he wasn’t a big enough part of the story! But I’m not sure I would like so many unrelated tangents. I might have to read it just to find out!

  10. Oh I’m so sorry you didn’t like this one. (I think I suggested it to you?) I really liked the ridiculous tangents. And I found the reading of it just perfect, I loved the humor and often laughed out loud.

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