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The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism    by James Geary order for
World in a Phrase
by James Geary
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

What's an aphorism, you ask? James Geary, a self-confessed aphorism addict, tells us that a compact definition is impossible, but offers Five Laws instead for these nuggets of ageless wisdom. An aphorism must be brief, definitive, personal, philosophical, and have a twist (like the best of classic SF). Geary tells us that 'You don't curl up with a good book of aphorisms; they leap off the page and unfurl inside you ... They make you question everything you think and do.'

Geary groups aphorisms in The World in a Phrase by periods: Ancient Sages, Preachers, and Prophets; Greek and Roman Stoics; French and Spanish Moralists; Heretics, Dissenters, and Skeptics; The Rise of the American One-Liner; In Praise of Light Verse; and The Aphorism Today. He gives an explanation for each saying. Here are some that leap off the page to me. Buddha said on his deathbed 'Be lamps unto yourselves.' Muhammad believed that 'The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr.'

Nietzsche felt that 'One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.' Twain lived by the aphorism, 'Irreverence is the champion of liberty, and its only sure defense.' Speaking of irreverence, Ambrose Bierce (author of The Devil's Dictionary) is in here. Fitzgerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is quoted from, as is Dr. Seuss. And we hear from Emily Dickinson - 'Who goes to dine must take his Feast / Or find the Banquet mean - / The Table is not laid without / Till it is laid within.'

Though many of these older aphorisms will be familiar to you, Geary's analyses enrich them. And he's picked interesting ones from relatively modern times, like Karl Kraus's 'Art serves to rinse out our eyes', or Stanislaw Jerzy Lec's 'No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.' Geary ends with his own view that 'Aphorisms are the real elixir of life.'

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