Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 21, 2007


By James Geary

Bloomsbury. 437 pp. $19.95

Off and on during my life, I have passed sleepless nights in making up lists of the dozen or so books a person might choose to take along if suddenly marooned on a desert island. This is a relatively easy game for serious readers: At least half the titles would be recognized classics -- the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, a good dictionary, that sort of thing. But occasionally I have made the challenge a little more difficult: "What if you could take just one book?" In my case, I finally decided that the best, mildly vainglorious choice would be my own commonplace notebook, the volume into which I have copied out favorite passages from my reading during the past 40 years. In it are poems, clever sayings, lines from Shakespeare and the Bible and many, many sentences and paragraphs from half-forgotten works of fiction and nonfiction. At least a third of the entries might be loosely categorized as aphorisms.

The aphorism is the prose equivalent of a memorable line of poetry, a bit of worldly wisdom or self-understanding reduced to a short, sharp shock: "It is a rule of God's Providence that we should succeed by failure" (John Henry Newman). In The World in a Phrase, his 2005 history of the form, James Geary laid down his "Five Laws of the Aphorism: It Must Be Brief, It Must Be Personal, It Must Be Definitive, It Must Be Philosophical, and It Must Have A Twist."

Need some examples? Here are three, honestly chosen at random, from Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists:

"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." (Mae West)

"To live is to lose ground." (E.M. Cioran)

"The only things one never regrets are one's mistakes." (Oscar Wilde)

Anyone who enjoys such quotations with an attitude probably owns -- or should acquire -- The Viking Book of Aphorisms, compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, and The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross. They remain invaluable and irreplaceable collections. But their emphasis is on the great maxims of the past, and they are organized by theme -- that is, chapters proffer a hodge-podge of epigrammatic observations, by various authors, about love, ambition or human suffering (to name three popular subjects).

By contrast, Geary arranges his guide by writer, starting with a concise biography followed by anywhere from three or four to a couple of dozen "essential aphorisms." He deliberately includes many unexpected contemporaries -- musician Leonard Cohen and longshoreman-essayist Eric Hoffer, for instance -- as well as writers from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. For convenience, he loosely clusters his aphorists by their professions or backgrounds: "Comics, Critics and Satirists," "Icons and Iconoclasts," "Philosophers and Theorists" and so forth. Periodically, he also sections off "parallel" observations, such as these on the theme of self-transformation:

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." (Gandhi)

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