Laughing to Learn

Humor is a powerful force that can be put to work in advancing understanding. Whether it’s the witty raconteur of a math professor who knows how to create enlightenment through lighthearted comparisons or the final bridge from one’s native language to arriving at a sense of full comfort in an acquired one, the opportunity to laugh provides heavy lifting of external information to internal grasp.

Of course, both humor and tastes in humor vary widely, expanding from visual slapstick to arch punning. The sorts that rely on transmission through language make readily available material for listening readers in search of learning as well as casual entertainment. To be successful on either or both counts, such audiobooks rely heavily on both careful writing and fine acting. Evident humor must expand subject comprehension rather than making it obscure or distasteful to those who might be put off by extreme argot or shocking imagery; while these can themselves be put to good entertainment services, they can also raise defenses among many listeners and thus make learning unlikely.

On the other hand, injecting levity into a lesson’s revelations can lift it from the dryness of brute informational download to the more comfortably leafy grove of contrasting shade and beam of illumination. The dogged forward thrust of discursive narrative (a train tunnel) to explain processes, elements, and outcomes acquires a dimensional landscape that offers the kinds of varied perspectival points (a tour around an open landscape) on which a fuller view depends. Humor offers the delicacy of antennae, eyes, and tactile senses working in harmony so that each moment holds a worth in itself rather than simply being a way station on an additive highway toward accruing fact details.

Here are some light-hearted listens for readers interested in learning hard stuff:

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, by mathematician and amateur baker Eugenia Cheng and performed—not just read!—by the multitalented Tavia Gilbert (HighBridge, 2015) tickles listeners through arithmetic theory by suggesting we attend to how baking brownies and other delicacies derived from following recipes woks. No need to bring enthusiasm for math to this one, although an interest in sweet treats can only add more flavor to Professor Cheng’s descriptions and Gilbert’s delivery of it.

Asteroid Hunters, written and read by NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab physicist Carrie Nugent (Simon & Schuster, 2017), could have been scary. After all, the asteroids might get us before anything human-made does. Instead of approaching this space lesson with somber warning tones, however, we get to chuckle with its turns of phrase and bouncy tones—much more easily attractive. Although let’s hope not more attractive to those mindless astral bodies….

One Summer, America 1927, written and read by Bill Bryson (Penguin Random House Audio, 2013) is less of a surprise as fun and educational listening for fans who are familiar with the author. Nonetheless, many potential listening readers could stand the introduction and this manner of offering up moments in history that makes what we already assume we know become even more and shinier is welcome.