Aphorisms via Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda has to have to the best job in the world: He reads books, and writes about them, for a living. He is a longtime columnist for the Washington Post Book World, and in 1993 won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. For the past 40 years or so, Dirda has kept a “commonplace notebook, the volume into which I have copied out favorite passages from my reading … In it are poems, clever sayings, lines from Shakespeare and the Bible and many, many sentences and paragraphs from half-forgotten works of fiction and nonfiction. At least a third of the entries might be loosely categorized as aphorisms.” In his eclectic and engaging memoir Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Dirda shares some favorite sayings from his commonplace archive. Book by Book is a paean to the act of reading as well as a meditation on the practical uses of literature in daily life. A selection from Dirda’s “life lines”:

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. —Joseph Conrad

Where is your Self to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment you have experienced. —Hugo von Hofmannsthal

In life, I have learned, there is always worse to come. —Julian Maclaren-Ross

Who speaks of victory? To endure is everything. —Rainer Maria Rilke

To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god. —Jorge Luis Borges

Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man. —Leon Trotsky

Dirda even occasionally pens a few bon mots of his own, such as:

In digressions lie lessons.


What children behold, they become.

Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure, a collection of personal takes on some well-known and undeservedly obscure great books. Dirda would no doubt agree with Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorism:

He who reads only the classics is sure to remain up to date.

Aphorisms for Dinner

Aphorisms for Dinner

Aphorisms on the House

This New Yorker cartoon, by William Haefelli from the May 21, 2001 issue, always strikes home for me, quite literally, since the same number of parents and children sit around our dinner table every evening.

I never regale my kids with aphorisms, of course, unless they ask … which, for some reason, they never do. And on the odd occasion when aphorisms are discussed, they rarely ask for second helpings…

This cartoon, also from The New Yorker (by George Price from the September 7, 1963 issue), is a sobering commentary on the power of aphorisms to cut right through even the most profound intoxications to present undiluted reality…

Aphorisms by Ninus Nestorovic

Speaking of Serbian aphorists … Ninus Nestorovic, a journalist, satirist customs officer and ex-professional footballer who lives in Novi Sad, has so far published four books of aphorisms as well as an anthology of aphorisms from Novi Sad,Pecat vremena. Like his fellow Serbs, Nestorovic takes a darkly satirical view of the state of his nation. Fortunately, the fatalistic political philosophy is leavened by some equally dark humor. Nestorovic delivers his aphorisms from on high, since he is over 2 meters tall … (The translations into English are by Dijana Zdravkovic, with some editing by me.)

At the very edge of the abyss, I realized someone was pushing me.

Since I died, I have increasingly come to resemble my dead father.

Thank the sound system for the silence you hear.

Why create the oasis in the middle of the desert and not some nicer place!

It is difficult to be paranoid with all those maniacs following you around all the time.

Faina Ranevskaya on Film

I have to confess that I doubted it at first, but now I am convinced: YouTube really does have a video of absolutely everything, including a clip from a film starring the great Russian aphorist Faina Ranevskaya (see p. 53 in Geary’s Guide). I spotted this clip, of Faina playing the piano and singing with a cigarette dangling from her lips, on Ein Hod, a blog of “rare, medium-rare and well-done books stoneware pottery ein hod village and silly things.” Ein Hod also has a link to a Wikepedia entry on Faina, which I never knew existed and which sports several pictures of the great woman herself. She even made it onto a Russian postage stamp! There is also, I learned, a Wikiquote page dedicated toRanevskaya’s sayings, several of which do not appear in my book, including these zingers:

Success is the only unforgivable sin against your neighbor.

Family can replace everything. So, before starting a family, one should think what’s more important—family or everything.

An Undiscovered Aphorism by Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman is one of America’s most accomplished aphorists in chief (see pp. 105-106 of Geary’s Guide). He had an unrivaled knack for coining blunt, energetic aphorisms. In 1973, Margaret Truman, the President’s daughter, published a memoir of her father. That book was ghost-written by Thomas Fleming, an author and historian who has penned dozens of novels and histories, specializing in the American Revolution and World Wars I and II. I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Fleming last week at a book fair and we got to chatting about each other’s books, as authors are wont to do at book fairs. When I told him I wrote about aphorisms, he told me the story of interviewing President Truman for Margaret’s memoir. Fleming spent a couple of weeks with the 33rd President, who died in 1972, as part of his research for the book. When he asked the President about the pressures of presidential decision-making, Truman shot back with an aphorism that, according to Fleming, has never before been published. So here it is, with acknowledgment and appreciation to Mr. Thomas Fleming, Harry S. Truman’s undiscovered aphorism:

Any six-year-old’s hindsight is worth a President’s foresight.