Monday, February 4, 2013

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, on International Finance as ‘Conversation Money’)

"Now there is a certain principle which has to be followed in all financial discussions involving sums over one hundred dollars. There is probably not more than one hundred dollars in actual cash in circulation today. That is, if you were to call in all the bills and silver and gold in the country today at noon tomorrow and pile them up on the table, you would find that you had just about one hundred dollars, with perhaps several Canadian pennies and a few peppermint life-savers.  All the rest of the money you hear about doesn’t exist. It is conversation money. When you hear of a transaction involving $50,000,000 it means that one firm wrote ‘50,000,000’ on a piece of paper and gave it to another firm, and the other firm took it home and said, ‘Look, Momma, I got 50,000,000!’ But when Momma asked for a dollar and a quarter to pay the man who washed the windows, the answer probably was that the firm hadn't got more than seventy cents in cash.”—Robert Benchley, “How to Understand International Finance,” in The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of His Favorites (1954)

When I opened up The New York Times Book Review this weekend, I wanted to do something that venerable publication had seldom, if ever, inspired me to do: cheer. I had been lured inside by a cover teaser about “the funniest writers alive,” and while I did find humorist Dave Barry’s opinions of these (Roy Blount Jr., Carl Hiaasen, Steve Martin, Andy Borowitz, Alan Zweibel, Gene Weingarten, and Nora Ephron, alive in Barry’s “heart,” he says), what made me sit up, take notice and want to applaud wildly was his answer to the question of which book had the greatest impact on him. It was a collection (he couldn’t remember which one) by Robert Benchley, which made him think, “This is what I want to do.”

I wish that, the next time some publisher issues another edition of the best works by Robert Benchley (1889-1945), they’ll make sure to plaster that quote all over the cover—or, better yet, get Barry to write a full-fledged introduction to the book. Maybe then, the great humorist, critic, and actor in innumerable Hollywood shorts (including one that netted an Academy Award), and gentle tippler will be remembered as more than what many recall him as today—grandfather of Jaws author Peter Benchley—and regard him the way he was in his own lifetime: fully the equal of contemporary James Thurber, only without a mean bone in his entire body. (This member of the Algonquin Roundtable numbered among his many friends Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, Philip Barry, and even the impossibly irascible John O’Hara.)

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