I have long been a lover of aphorisms. At 16 I started a commonplace book to keep such quotations (long before I knew that I was creating something called a “commonplace book.” The earliest entry – a quote by Anatole Broyard – shows just how earnestly I aspired to be an intellectual: “Even Freud, who was a pessimist, conceded that the neurotic thinks big. The grandeur of his delusions is the last gasp of the epic or heroic mode in the twentieth century.”) I have maintained that book (now a commonplace Word file) ever since, stuffing it with quotes that catch my fancy. This is my longest running collection, longer than the longboxes of comics I own and much more efficiently stored.
Something clearly appeals to me about a good pithy quote (one that might provide the opportunity to use the word “pithy,” for instance). It allows me to have the fantasy that wisdom can be encapsulated in an easily portable fashion. (A related fantasy makes me overly fond of Post-It notes. If my entire to-do list – in tiny handwriting — can fit on a 3”x3” Post-It note, then my life can’t possibly be getting out of control.) This also has something to do with my Southern Baptist upbringing where people memorized Bible verses to use on each other with great regularity (for some reason, my mother was fond of telling me that “a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” (Prov. 22: 1) The problem was that I didn’t know anyone who was offering great riches, so it never seemed like that much of a choice to me.) The Bible has a whole book of ‘em called “Proverbs” just ready for deployment. It’s hard now to remember the ubiquity of Reader’s Digest in that era, but I mined the “Quotable Quotes” feature regularly for what would eventually become (in today’s parlance) memes.
The saying at the head of this blog post is from my favorite essayist: Joseph Epstein. It seems that neither Epstein nor I can pass up a good quote (he wrote the forward to the Yale Book of Quotations, and he put me onto one of the oddest biographical works I’ve ever read: Louis Kronenberger’s The Last Word: Portraits of Fourteen Master Aphorists, a collection of short literary biographies of writers who are particularly quotable. Turns out that Shaw, Wilde, and La Rouchefoucauld don’t have much in common other than their quips). Epstein’s personal essays (his true achievement: start with Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life) are full of delightful digressions where his own voice is interrupted by a bon mot from someone else.
At another time I’ll pass along an appreciation of Epstein’s work, but it only seemed fitting that my first selection from my commonplace book to appear in my blog should be this meta-quote from the master. From time to time when it’s taking me too long to write my next blog entry, I’ll pass along a quotation from my collection just to keep the blog monster fed. I promise not to make them as highfalutin as the Broyard quote, but hopefully they will serve as little stimulants to thought.