The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism

James Geary, Author
James Geary, Author . Bloomsbury $19.95 (229p) ISBN 978-1-58234-430-0
Reviewed on: 08/15/2005
Release date: 11/01/2005

It's not a stretch to say Geary is obsessed with aphorisms. Ever since discovering the literary form in the "Quotable Quotes" section of Reader's Digest when he was a child, he has been compiling them. Given his level of passion, it's fitting that he has penned what is probably the definitive work on aphorisms, a love letter– cum–memoir disguised as a reference book. It also explains why he occasionally gets so carried away that he describes Nietzsche as "the Evil [sic] Knievel of nineteenth-century philosophy" and Frenchman Joseph Joubert as "the great apostle of the aphorism." But Geary, deputy editor of the European edition of Time magazine, is also a veteran newsman, and for the most part he tones down the hype. He provides a useful definition—an aphorism is brief, definitive, personal, philosophical and must have a twist—along with lively thumbnail sketches of some of the masters of the form, among them Ludwig Wittgenstein and Mark Twain, "who deliberately set out to overturn [Benjamin] Franklin's friendly, avuncular sayings with his own darker, more ornery aphorisms." Geary's enthusiasm may overwhelm as much as it enlightens, but fellow fanatics will be delighted. (Oct.)

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