I had to write a book report last week for a course I am taking. No need for details, let’s just say I didn’t much enjoy the experience. It reminded me too much of high school, which I think was the last time I had to do something like that.
Hating book reports was what we did back then. The competition was to see who could find the shortest book to read and review. As a voracious reader I really didn’t mind – I always have two or three books on the go – but my classmates, for the most part, didn’t share my appetite for the printed word.
There was great excitement therefore when one of my friends discovered Pigs Is Pigs in the school library. None of us had heard of Ellis Parker Butler before. I know now he was an American humorist at the turn of the twentieth century. Back in 1968 what we knew as that the book was the shortest in the library – and mostly pictures! I think I was one of the few who didn’t turn to it at some point when a book report was required. I did read it though, and it stuck with me.
Humour can be so ephemeral. What is funny at one time in one culture does not seem funny a few years later, or in another culture. Butler’s stories are set in his time, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but there is a timelessness to them despite the language and situations. Readers today might not know what a telegram is or be surprised at his choice of words (he describes ethnic groups in ways that are unacceptable today) but that won’t detract from their enjoyment.
That is because Butler was writing people – and human nature is pretty much the same today as it was 150 or 1500 years ago. People can find themselves in funny situations in any century. Re-reading some of the stories recently I was struck by the similarities to Canadian writer Stephen Leacock, who was a contemporary of Butler’s 9and whose work also holds up well).
Pigs Is Pigs is about two guinea pigs and mindless bureaucracy – which is as much a problem today as it was when the story was first published in 1905. As anyone who has battled a bureaucracy knows, common sense can be in short supply. In Pigs Is Pigs that leads to amusing results.
Other writers have been influenced by Pigs Is Pigs. Science fiction author Robert A Heinlein incorporated a variation of it in his 1952 novel The Rolling Stones. And the guinea pigs showed up in an episode of the original Star Trek television series. If you remember “The Trouble With Tribbles” then (spoiler alert) you have a fair idea what Pigs Is Pigs is all about, though I would argue that Pigs is funnier.
In 1954 Walt Disney released a short cartoon based on the book that was nominated for an Oscar. I don’t think it is very funny, but you can make your own judgement by clicking on the YouTube link below.
Better still, why not take some time to read the original story? It is 3,390 words, which means you can read it in about the same amount of time it would take to watch the cartoon version. You can download it here. Ellis Parker Butler died in 1937, so all his writings are now public domain, you can download without a guilty conscience.
I would also suggest you don’t stop at Pigs Is Pigs. Download some of Butler’s other stories. They are good reminders that though times may have changed, people have not.