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What Aphorists Have to Say About the Cultures That Produced Them

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we continue our conversation with James Geary about his new book, "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists."

An aphorism is a philosophical saying whose author is known. Two years ago Geary wrote "The World in a Phrase" and it became a best seller. So for his new book, he spent last year reading everything about aphorisms he could find in the British Library -- he's an American who lives in London -- and he had some books translated from Polish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese.

He says aphorists reflect the cultures that produce them.

JAMES GEARY: "If you take America, for example, there's a long line of aphorists starting with Benjamin Franklin who are sort of down-home philosophers who pretend to be more stupid than they really are. Like Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a very educated man but he created Poor Richard and Poor Richard's Almanac. And these aphorisms are sort of homely, have a homely wisdom, but they're also very, very sophisticated. One of my favorites from Benjamin Franklin is, 'It's hard for an empty sack to stand upright.'

"And people who followed him had the same kind of down-home humor and sense of humor that he did. And there's another great aphorist who's all but forgotten today named Josh Billings. And he was a contemporary of Mark Twain, slightly older than Mark Twain, and at one point he was much more famous than Mark Twain. And, in fact, Mark Twain sort of paraphrased some of Josh Billings' sayings.

"But Josh Billings, he was the son of a senator and was from New England, but he adopted this sort of Midwestern cowboyish-type persona. And one of his great sayings is, 'Man was created a little lower than the angels, and he's been getting a little lower ever since.'"

AA: "Now you mentioned that some of his aphorisms worked their way into Mark Twainisms, which sort of leads to the next question [which] is, in researching this book, how could you be sure that the people were responsible for some of these wonderful sayings?"

JAMES GEARY: " Well, that's a very good question. I have made some mistakes. 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.' Now I thought that was Edmund Burke for sure. But very scrupulous readers pointed out to me that it's not Edmund Burke, and in fact no one knows who it is."

RS: "If we didn't read the aphorisms in your book, where would we find an aphorism in daily life?"

JAMES GEARY: "Often advertisements come close to being aphorisms. Where they most often fail is they're not philosophical. Like something like Nike's slogan, 'Just do it,' could be an aphorism but is really not philosophical. And it's urging people to all do the same thing, which is essentially buy Nike products, obviously -- which is not the effect that a real aphorism has on people. It's much more individual than that.

"So I think advertising is one place. Let's see if I can think of ... "

RS: "Woody Allen. Movies."

JAMES GEARY: "Moves are another one. Woody Allen is also a great aphorist, so there's lots of aphorisms in his films and his monologues and one of the things he says was, 'Eighty percent of success is showing up."

"Pop music is also a great place to find aphorisms. Bob Dylan, for example. 'You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows' is a very famous one. But also Leonard Cohen, he's a great aphorist as well, and one of my favorites from him is, 'There's a crack in everything. [It's] how the light gets in.' But there's also, if you just have a conversation with anybody on the street, I guarantee you that if you explain what an aphorism is to them, that they will have one that they know and have been living by. One of the best ones I had recently was from a woman that I met at a reading and she said, 'If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space.'"

RS: "Finally, I just want to ask this question: You've been obsessed with aphorisms all your life, have you compiled like a list of your favorites that you can't live without?"

JAMES GEARY: "I am so glad you asked me that question because yes I have. There are three that I really can't live without. And the first is by Ralph Waldo Emerson and that is, 'Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day.' The second one is by Josh Billings and that is one of the most inspirational aphorisms I think I've ever read: 'Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.' And the third one which I just think is so funny and so brilliant and so -- it's a brilliant piece of poetry as well as aphorism, and it's by a Polish aphorist from the beginning of the twentieth century named Stanislaw Jerzy Lec and that is, 'No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.'"

AA: James Geary, speaking to us from the VOA bureau in New York. His new book is called "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists." And that's WORDMASTER for this week. The first part of our interview is at our Web site, With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.


James Geary's Top 10 Favorite Aphorisms

1. "Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

2. "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." — Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

3. "Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there." —Josh Billings

4. "When you're going through hell, keep going." — Winston Churchill

5 (tie). "In most men there is a dead poet whom the man survives." —Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve

5 (tie). "To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty; to be a poet at forty is to be a poet." — Eugene Delacroix

6. "States of need are gift-laden carpets." — Ibn Ata'allah al-Iskandari

7. "Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it." — Buddha

8. "Love decreases when it ceases to increase." — Francois Rene Chateaubriand

9. "As soon as you find you can do anything, do something you can't." —Rudyard Kipling.

10. "Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learnt to walk." — Cyril Connolly