If there is anything to be learned from the 100-year book club project it is that there is great pleasure in embracing 100-year old books. P.G. Wodehouse has fallen out of fashion and readers don’t have much occasion to encounter him these days. His stories aren’t read [much] in schools or studied in universities, they aren’t glamorous enough for Hollywood portrayals so Wodehouse stays in our common imagination largely because the name “Jeeves” has become to butler as “Kleenex” has to tissue.
When we imagine Jeeves we’re really picturing Carson, or Mr. Stevens, or Alfred. Do you know how I know that no one really reads Wodehouse? Because the titular butler in My Man Jeeves, the one after whom a popular search engine was named, does have encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects but often dispels advice that gets his master into trouble. Remember when he was trying to help one of Wooster’s friends get approval for his actress fiancee and convinced Wooster to finance a book on birds to impress the would-be husband’s family? And then she winds up marrying the uncle? Or when he convinces Wooster to loan his flat to a friend so the friend can impress his family but the plan leads to the friend having his income cut off? If we’re naming a search engine after Jeeves, then it seems we’re going to wind up with a search engine that thinks its a bit too clever and that directs us to things that might be best for us, but that aren’t really what we want.
Asking Jeeves for directions to the closest Burrito Boyz? His directions will land you at a Goodlife Fitness.
I’m not complaining; I liked Jeeves a great deal and thought it brave of Wodehouse, an aristocrat himself, to poke fun at his monied protagonists and write the butler as the only character of respectability. But perhaps that is why AskJeeves.com went the way of the dinosaur. We don’t want the thing that is best for us, we want Google to deliver the exact thing we want, even if our request will land us in deep water.
Wodehouse’s humour holds up, even if we’re long past an era of butlers and ascots and transatlantic sea travel. Read him alongside Fitzgerald to get a more measured understanding of the greatness of these great men we’re meant to look back on and revere.