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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 20, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Aphorisms, Latin, Hobbytown, Great Websites

Everyone's familiar with collections of witty or wise sayings, like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. The value or interest of such sayings often depends on who said them, and when, and why.

Some quotations, though, stand alone. It doesn't matter who said them. What matters is the saying itself, the words, the ideas.

Often such sayings arise as part of folklore. One of the games my family most enjoys playing is Wise and Otherwise, in which the players are given the first part of a saying from a particular culture, and have to make up the ending -- hoping to fool other players into giving them votes.

We've found that half the time, the ending is so weird and its meaning so elusive that we can't make up our mind whether we or the people who invented the saying are the dumb ones.

But it's not just folklore that produces such sayings. When someone deliberately makes up a pithy statement that it meant to be quoted out of context, we call it an "aphorism," and the person who composed it is an "aphorist."

Here are some examples:

"When a dog is drowning, everyone offers him drink." Written by George Herbert (1593-1633), this statement is one of those delicious ironies that are fun to quote. Imagine, for instance, that you're having serious debt problems, and you get a new credit card in the mail. That's when you need this particular aphorism ... as you cut up the card and throw it away.

"Solitude is better than a bad companion." Anyone who's ever been stuck on a plane or bus next to a chatty bore knows the truth of this aphorism (from Muhammad Shems Al-Deen's 1515 collection of Arab aphorisms).

"Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions." This aphorism by G.K. Chesterton works in part because of the choice of words -- the initial f makes it feel memorable and clever.

Try a different version without the alliteration and you'll see what I mean: "Stupid ideas don't become smart ones just because all the cool people are repeating them." This is just as true and means much the same thing, but I doubt anyone would bother putting it in a collection of aphorisms.

I got these aphorisms (except the lame one that I made up) from Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists. Author James Geary focuses, not on the topic, but on the writer, giving us a brief biography before providing us a sample of some of his or her best aphorisms.

Naturally, this makes it almost impossible to look up a good quote to fit a preconceived topic. Instead, this book invites you to read it all in sequence and think about both the ideas and the person who wrote them.

A sampling of aphorisms from Thomas Alva Edison reveals, not just individual ideas, but a coherent philosophy:

"I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work."

"Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless."

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

Look closer at that last one and you begin to realize you're seeing something very like a poem. "Opportunity" can't literally wear overalls -- but the metaphor carries a whole range of meaning along with it.

Opportunity is

Missed by most people

Because it is dressed

In overalls

And looks like work.

These aphorisms aren't just meaning -- they're also a difficult and rewarding art.

Here are some of Geary's selection from aphorisms by Albert Einstein:

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." (I think he might not have said this if his grandmother had still been alive and he had attempted to explain relativity to her.)

"Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination."

Of course in detail this statement is absurd -- most humans are not brilliant, intuition can be very quick, and computer is only as fast and accurate as its software allows. But the aphorism does sum up a general principle in a highly memorable way.

"As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it." This one might require a little thought to see what he's even getting at. But the idea is that the more we know, the more we realize how much more there is that we don't know. (It helps if you remember grade school geometry, of course.)

Context does matter for some of these aphorists. Take these quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

These quotations mean a lot more if you know who Martin Luther King was, what he struggled for, and how he died. And yet even if you had never heard of him, these aphorisms are worth thinking about.

Of course, these aphorists were already famous for something else. And yet ... if Martin Luther King, Jr., had not been a brilliant aphorist, if he hadn't been able to create memorable, pithy sayings, would he have been able to accomplish all that he did?

Even Einstein and Edison -- their achievements were great, but there have been other pivotal mathematicians, other productive inventors. Part of the reason why the names "Einstein" and "Edison" are immediately known by most adult Americans is precisely because, along with their accomplishments, they also said wise and clever things that we love to quote.

Abraham Lincoln is also in that category. His accomplishments were undeniable -- it's the reason he was our greatest president. But part of the reason he was in the public eye in the first place was because he was so good at saying things in a powerful, clever, memorable way:

"The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly."

"Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left behind by those who hustle."

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

"No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens."

"You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was."

Geary includes aphorists who were once among the most-read authors, but who now are nearly forgotten, since we no longer study Latin and Greek in grade school. For instance, Tully -- Marcus Tullius Cicero -- was once considered the greatest writer who ever lived:

"A room without books is like a body without a soul." Well, that makes me feel good, since there's hardly a room in our house without shelves or stacks or boxes of books.

"To be ignorant of the past is to forever be a child." Which, given the state of most Americans' knowledge of history, suggests that our elections most resemble a junior high school popularity contest -- voters and politicians being profoundly alike in their ignorance.

"I criticize by creation, not by finding fault." This is truly wise: Any idiot can be a reviewer (as witness: this columnist), but the most powerful way to criticize something badly done is to do it better. Soon the bad work will be lost in the shadow of your achievements.

"Politicians are not born; they are excreted." Nuff said.

Some of the aphorists are people I've never heard of. I studied theatre, but never heard of (or at least do not remember hearing of) Tirso de Molina. But some of his aphorisms are certainly memorable, like, "A love without equality does not last."

I've heard the quote from the German playwright Schiller "Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain." But I had not heard: "Happy is he who learns to bear what he cannot change"; "A merely fallen enemy may rise again, but the reconciled one is truly vanquished"; "It does not prove a thing to be right because the majority say it is so"; "It is base to filch a purse, daring to embezzle a million, but it is great beyond measure to steal a crown."

There are aphorists who are represented by only a fraction of their great sayings -- Shakespeare, for instance, could have taken up dozens of pages, but Geary is not trying to collect all the clever aphorisms ever written; rather he's trying to introduce us to all the aphorists who are worth hearing from.

So Shakespeare's prodigious output is reduced to a smattering. That can be disappointing to those of us who will find some of our favorites missing.

The biggest problem with Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists is that I couldn't put it down. Even though each saying is short and worthy of thought, so that there are thousands of possible stopping points, I keep thinking, How long would it take to read one more? The result has been sleepless nights reading aphorisms -- because I just couldn't stop.

You have been warned.

*

It takes a lot of daring to give me a book as a gift. My relationship with Amazon.com, Borders, and Barnes&Noble is such that as a general rule, you can figure that if I want to read it, I already own the book.

But this fall, my daughter daringly gave me Stefan Rudnicki's reading of Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner. I think this is the most important book published this past year, at least for anyone who wants to understand the American past. This history of the CIA is flawed -- Weiner is a liberal journalist, and partakes of all the biases and blindnesses that one might expect.

But he had access to documents never before available to the public, and his biases are easy enough get around if you pay attention. What matters is that you can't understand the past sixty years of American history without knowing the information that I've seen nowhere but in this book.

I will give Legacy a full-length review later; I mention it now because my daughter took the risk of buying a book for me and it worked.

I figured it would be another few years before anybody else gave me a book that I loved, and hadn't read or heard of before. But at Christmas, my brother-in-law in Dubai sent me Nicholas Ostler's Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, and I loved it.

At first glance, you might think that the history of a language -- especially an officially-dead language like Latin -- would be boring beyond belief.

But this is not a language textbook -- you don't come out of the reading experience with one whit more ability to read or speak Latin than you had coming in.

What the book provides is a powerful new angle from which to view the roots and flowering of western civilization. In fact, I could see teaching a course in Western Civ using this book as the primary text -- and my students would love it.

Naturally, it helps if you're already interested in the development of words and the evolution of language -- as I am. But most of the book is really about the way that Latin was spread, changed, and preserved by its association with Rome, then with Christianity, and finally with scholarship and education.

Ostler is an excellent writer, so that his words are a pleasure to read. He is also a wise observer, and one of the most telling points in his book comes from his decision to refer to early French, Spanish, and Italian, not as "Old French" or "Old Spanish" or whatever -- but rather as the vernacular "Roman" language.

This is important because it's how the speakers of these languages saw themselves. For one thing, there was no "French" and "Spanish" until fairly recent times. Instead, there were Norman French, Parisian French, Provençal, Catalan, Castilian, Leonese/Portuguese, and so on.

The differences from one village to the next were slight, and only a few of the thousands of versions of Roman vernacular ever became literary languages.

But to all these people, throughout the "dark ages" and "middle ages," Latin did not seem to be a foreign language, just a formal one. They would go to mass and hear what they thought of as their own language, only it was a very elevated version of it.

They all knew how to translate the familiar, repeated words. They understood the language of the Church to be their own language, only spoken as scholars and priests spoke it. It's rather the way Americans today recognize Shakespeare's language, or the language of the King James Version of the Bible, as being our own, only "older," more formal, and more "English."

When I write, for example, in the now-lost second person singular, you have no trouble understanding me: "Thou art wise, and hast the wit to read what I have written thee." But you would probably rather hit yourself in the head with a brick than have to write something using that verb tense! It's English, but it's "above us" or "old."

Eventually, the languages diverged enough that priests began to give their homilies, not in Church Latin, but in the vernacular "Roman" language spoken by the common people. And since the vernacular varied according to where you were, priests had to learn to speak the local language, even if they grew up somewhere else, with a different version of vernacular Latin.

It wasn't until the Renaissance that writers began to write serious literature and discourses in vernacular languages, and even then, the real language of literature was still Latin, because only Latin could be read and understood throughout the civilized world (i.e., Roman Catholic Europe).

Ad Infinitum was pure pleasure for me to read. It required no special expertise or training in language to understand it. The book is definitely aimed at an audience of ordinary educated people. I cannot recommend it more highly than it deserves.

In a way, this book has a special poignancy for native speakers of English. Because of the British Empire and now America's cultural and technical supremacy in the world, English functions much as Latin did in the Middle Ages -- as the language that everybody in the civilized world has to learn in order to be truly educated.

If you pilot a plane or sail a ship, if you wish to be published in internationally recognized journals of scholarship or science, or if you simply wish to tour the world, your path will be infinitely easier if you have learned English fluently.

Latin occupied this position in the Western world for about two thousand years, and even now lingers on in biological nomenclature and a few other niches.

But French was the language of learning and diplomacy for only a relatively brief time -- a couple of centuries. Again, there are still many who learn French and it still carries an aura of culture with it. But linguistic dominance is not forever.

Today, we are proud of the fact that Americans can travel the world without knowing a word of any foreign language. But how many generations will it be before it is not English, but Chinese or Russian or Spanish or Arabic or some other language that is the one required to get along in the world?

*

When I was a kid, I loved my HO trains. My brothers and I would spread out our train layouts through the house, or set them up on the ping-pong table on the patio or in the living room.

The Christmas tree wasn't complete unless there was a train under it (and we would ruin the track by short-circuiting the rails with icicles from the tree).

Best of all, though, was when my older sister made papier mache "tunnels" for my brothers and me. Painted to look like stone, fields, and roads, then dotted with "trees" made of lichens, they looked almost miraculous to me, and I made her teach me how to do it myself.

I couldn't wait to be a grownup. I was sure that when I had a house of my own, I'd be able to set up my trains in a room and leave them up, building a whole world to surround them and never having to "clean up that mess."

Well, I'm an adult now, and I don't have time or a room in my house where I can indulge my love of model trains and the landscapes and buildings that go with them.

But when I feel nostalgic for my childhood, or when I feel that longing to create a world filled with the chug of electric trains, I go over to Hobbytown USA in Westover Gallery of Shops, next to Doc Green's, and browse their selection. Not that Hobbytown USA is, strictly speaking, a train store. For me, though, it's a plus not to have a train layout already in place.

Most hobby stores that do have such a layout actually do such a shoddy job of it that I don't like looking at them. Either they mix scales -- anathema! -- or they seem to have carelessly done the minimal job. It's nothing like what I would create myself.

I'd rather look at the packaged kits and landscaping materials and imagine what I would create with them.

But Hobbytown USA has a lot more than just trains. In fact, that's just one small corner, and my purchases there have lately been of high quality toy farm animals for some of the young children in our lives to play with.

The selection is widely varied, with all kinds of surprises that you won't find in crafts stores or toy stores. Worth a visit, I think!

*

It's a quite possibly the greatest website design anywhere, ever. HEMA is a Netherlands department store, and I don't speak the language. But it's not necessary in order to enjoy. Just go there and look at the screen for just a few moments. Things will start happening, and you'll see what I mean:

http://producten.hema.nl/

*

And speaking of great web animations, you really owe it to yourself to see a delightfully surreal YouTube animation called "so called virus stick figure": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRebnO5MlDk

It's not required that you be a computer geek to enjoy this animation, but it helps if you have some idea of what's going on with computers and videogames. Then you'll realize how deeply weird and wonderful this melange of gaming and programming motifs really is. But it's a pleasure for anyone.

And it's no accident that it was my teenage daughter who led me to this animation -- the whole younger generation is now computer-savvy enough to get almost all the gags in this animation, even the ones that will sail right past many in my generation.

Mine is, I think, the last generation for whom knowing about computers was voluntary, a hobby for those who cared. The generation that is now thirty-and-under will do just fine with this, without any special explanations. (I was a computer hobbyist, so I get the jokes; I just know a lot of people my age who won't.)

And one nice thing about these web entertainments is: They're free.


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