It's rare for me to physically laugh out loud when reading a book. I read (and admired) Patton Oswalt's recent Zombie Spaceship Wasteland without emitting a single giggle. I've thumbed through both of John Hodgman's books with only a faint glimmer of a grin. I finished Michael Ian Black's My Custom Van without once cracking a smile. So when I say that I laughed out loud four times while reading This Is a Book by Demetri Martin, that is to say: It's very, very funny. Well, parts of it are—his cartoons and certain one-liners, to be precise. Other parts are not nearly as funny; some of the longer passages actually lean toward tedious. But for the most part, Martin has written a book that is both intelligent and astoundingly silly, with lots of fine jokes buried in the nearly 60 short pieces that make up the volume.
Martin, a former writer for Conan O'Brien who gained notice as a correspondent on The Daily Show and later as host of his own (intermittently funny) show on Comedy Central, has a youthful likeability that works best when his jokes don't follow a straightforward route, as on the short multiple-choice test he's devised to determine if the reader is a robot. (Sample question: "My dishwasher is: (A) Efficient. (B) Hilarious.") Other jokes get drawn out too long, as in the piece about Socrates' publicist, or the story about a man who is legally dead for five minutes and falls in love with a spirit in the afterlife.
Still, there's more hit than miss here, and perhaps the collection's best inclusions are Martin's simple cartoons, which are crudely drawn but are a clearer demonstration of Martin's absurdist wit than his straightforward prose. And there are a few exercises that are simply impressive for their own sake, such as the 500-word palindrome Martin constructs detailing an old man's visit to a strip club, or the full-size, functional crossword puzzle (complete with more than 70 clues) in which every box on the grid can be filled with the letter A. Otherwise, Martin is funniest with super-compressed ideas, like the random statistics, graphs, word definitions, and epigrams that make up the bulk of This Is a Book—for instance, this poem: "Spilling/floor cleaner/Only makes the/floor cleaner."