Book Jokes, Not Joke Books

There are people out there who actually read textbooks, but I’m not one of them. I’m nerdy enough to be thrilled when I get this semester’s books. I skim a chapter or two early in the school year, but eventually I devolve into looking at the book, thinking about reading it, and ignoring it for the next four months except for the night before a test. (Because I’m a scholastic winner, that’s why.)

Every so often though, I open a book to study and I come across a sentence that’s so profoundly ridiculous that I have to write it down so I can remember it forever. It’s sentences like these that make me think textbooks authors assume no one is actually reading their content. I honestly won’t be surprised if one day I read a book for class and find an entire chapter that consists solely of “blah blah blah” over and over again.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. There’s a whole page on Television Tropes dedicated to ridiculous textbook sentences. Maybe it’s sad being a textbook author. Maybe they put dumb sentences in there just to mess with people. Maybe these textbooks were steppingstones into literature for them. I don’t have all the answers. All I know for sure is that occasionally I read something so funny it’s hard to stay in my seat and keep the giggles to a minimum.

My High School Physics Book:

“A woman with horizontal velocity jumps off a dock into a stationary boat…” I don’t know why this sentence makes me want to die laughing. I imagine one physicist saying, “Check out that woman’s horizontal velocity”, and another responding, “I’m more of a vertical velocity kind of guy.”

“If you take R crossed into F, what is the direction?” This actually makes sense in the context, I’m just really bad at physics. (My answer to this question was “…South?”)

“What is the freezing point of a chicken?” This is the sentence that made me realize I was never going to be good at physics.

“What is the angle of your depression?” This is the sentence that made me wonder how a textbook knew about my teenage angst.

“…Where does the man from problem #15 live– the moon, or France?” I don’t… I can’t even… What?

“Tim and Sue are holding hands when they are given a charge while standing on an insulating platform. Tim is larger than Sue. Who has the larger amount of charge, or do they both have the same amount?” Why are Tim and Sue on an insulating platform? Why are they holding hands there? Why did they allow themselves to be charged? Are they romantically involved, or are they just scared of the charge they’re about to be given? Who put them up to this? I have so many questions.

“One of the bulbs in the previous problem burns out.” Now in my head the previous problem looks like a marquee or a dying neon sign that’s buzzing and getting dimmer and dimmer. (That right there. That’s why I’m bad at physics.)

My High School History book:

“Pursuing the sharp-toothed beaver ever deeper into the heart of the continent, the French trappers and their Indian partners hiked, rode, snowshoed, sailed, and paddled across amazing distances.” This isn’t a textbook. This is poetry. There are at least five, less-silly ways to write that.

“Not a single person in Harper’s Ferry had any idea that history was about to explode in their midst.” I hope the authors of this book invented a time machine to test that out.

Time-Travelling Author: “History is about to explode in your midst!”

Citizen of Harper’s Ferry: “Nah.”

Time-Travelling Author, taking notes: “Just as I thought.”

John Steuart Curry, Tragic Prelude, (1938–40),...

Incidentally, this is the face history makes when exploding into your midst.

“Eisenhower… was serenely above the petty partisan fray. He also shrewdly knew that his greatest asset was his enjoyment of the ‘affection and respect of our citizenry’, as he confided to his diary in 1949.” I love this one. It’s probably in the top three sentences I’ve ever read. I imagine bald little Eisenhower lying on his stomach in pink silk pajamas with his feet kicking in the air, like a 13-year-old girl at a sleepover, confiding to his diary with a feathery pen. So cute.

My College Law & Ethics Book:

“While the brief-lived ban [of a kid’s book depicting nudity] suggests a humor-challenged library system in southern Mississippi that couldn’t handle the naked truth, book banning is no laughing matter.” Oh, textbook authors, you’re so funny. I bet you giggled while writing that one.

“There would certainly be few content-based objections to an individual presenting a speech on how to grow mushrooms.” There certainly would be, textbook. There certainly would be.


  1. Kim

    I’m getting ready for grad school at age 50. I need some humor (and more tuition money) to get through. Good to know textbooks will help… a little.

  2. shenanitim

    I think you’re right about the authors being bored and “loading” certain sentences. I think it happens everywhere. I do it at work, my boss, for whom English is not the first language, misses it, and suddenly I’m explaining to the store manager why I don’t take my vocation seriously.

    • Stephanie

      Ha. I think the best way to do it is to write a ton of boring stuff around it that everyone just skims over, and that way no one catches you. There’s no point in taking life too seriously anyway.

  3. Kim

    So I shared your post with my kids, both recent college grads. Warning: one is an engineer. Here’s his response. Apparently his textbooks have/had weird sentences too. Who CARES if corn and chicken share similar values?

    hahahaha those are awesome! I feel the need to respond to a few of the physics ones:

    1. “Woman jumps into a boat…” when I first read that, I thought “ouch, that must hurt.”
    2. “freezing point of chicken” I totally have this: -2.8C, other properties, in case you’re interested: 74% water content (by mass), specific heat above freezing is 3.32 (kJ/kg)*K, specific heat below freezing is 1.77 (kJ/kg)*K, and the latent heat of fusion is 247 kJ/kg. Ironically, with the exception of freezing point, these values are the same as those for corn. (Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach, Cengel & Boles, 5th ed. 2006, pg. 889)

    • Stephanie

      I love this! It makes me feel way better about the unbelievably crazy sentences I was reading, because engineering students apparently read even crazier ones. And now I can talk about the freezing point of corn at parties! Congratulations on going back to grad school! I hope your textbooks are simultaneously ridiculous and informative.

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