Monday, February 18, 2008

Wisdom, Briefly

In last month’s issue of Harper’s, Arthur Krystal wrote a review about books of aphorisms. It was good (I generally like Krystal’s work), but there was something inherently unsatisfying about it. If, as it’s been famously said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing an essay about aphorisms is like...performing a ballet about breakdancing. The longer essay, no matter how good, just leaves you hungry for the sharper crack of the shorter form.

Luckily, Krystal did the best thing he could in the circumstance, which is direct readers to good sources. He claimed that the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross, “continues to be the best anthology of its kind.” A couple of clicks on Amazon and a not-so-patient week or so of waiting later, I had my copy. And though Gertrude Stein made the aphoristic argument that “Remarks are not literature,” the book tells a different story.

It cleverly begins with André Gide claiming that, “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” When it comes to aphorisms, he might have added that we continually condense things in hopes of making them easier to remember.

Pleasingly broken into subjects that are broad but not too broad, the book contains all the greats -- Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Oscar Wilde, Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer... Wow. I was looking for a funny, disjunctive name to cap that list (something like Kermit the Frog), but I’ve scanned the index and there are only heavy hitters on display. Heavy hitters. Like La Rochefoucauld, a 17th-century pioneer of the form, who wrote, “We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.”

Yeats wrote, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” And Emerson proved him right when he wrote, “The years teach us much which the days never knew.”

It’s 365 pages of similar quality, and I think every decent personal library should have a copy. Mine will provide fodder for a new feature around here -- the Aphorism of the Week. Keep your eyes peeled.


Anonymous Kevin Longrie said...

I love Harper's, I know it's not true, but I feel like no one else reads it. Glad to see you do.

Side Note: I found the essay in this month's edition, the one about reading, quite good. It was also nice to read something that didn't say reading was on its way out, you know?

2:04 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I did like that piece about reading. I was briefly an intern there several years ago -- I tend to enjoy the magazine's arts/culture pieces more than its political ones, but overall I'm a fan.

3:23 PM  

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