Aphorisms by Sarah Manguso

“I don’t read prose so much as root through it for sentences in need of rescue.” This is the first sentence in Sarah Manguso’s 2016 examination of the aphorism in Harper’s, ‘In Short: Thirty-six ways of looking at the aphorism,’ in which she also confesses she has “a thing for writers who deliver their work by the line, the epigram, the aperçu.” Manguso is one of those writers herself, as she demonstrates in her collection of aphorisms, 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017).

Manguso’s Harper’s essay is an aphoristic consideration of the aphorism as a literary form. In item #27 of ‘In Short’s’ 36-section sequence, she rejects the idea that the aphorism is a modern, Twitter-induced phenomenon and, as such, is evidence that our attention spans are contracting faster than matter at the edge of a black hole. “Please don’t try to convince me that my romance with concision follows from the way we experience reality now, in interrupted and interruptive increments,” she writes, “or that if I like short literature I should be on Twitter; or that my taste is merely a symptom of a pathological inability to focus or commit; or that since I have a child I no longer have the time to write at length. I have always loved concision.”

One of the aphorisms in Manguso’s essay about aphorisms is:

Brevity isn’t the soul of witlessness; shallowness is.

The aphorism is the oldest written art form on the planet. It is now and always has been a discipline and style of philosophical thought, not some psychic shortcut to drive-thru insights. Aphorisms are words without ends. As Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116–118) put it,

An aphorism is the last link in a long chain of thought.

Manguso’s aphorisms are indeed ‘arguments’; i.e., they put forward a point of view, a position, from which readers can form their own chains of thought. The arguments in 300 Arguments are not the partisan bickering we’ve become accustomed to, but part of the writer’s process of working on, reasoning through, and figuring out that also catalyzes that same process in the reader. In so doing, Manguso’s aperçus fit Julien de Valckenaere’s (Geary’s Guide, pp. 61–62) definition of aphoristic excellence:

The shortest aphorism that makes you think the longest is the best.

A selection from 300 Arguments:

The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.

If you want to know someone’s secret, don’t ask a thing. Just listen.

Achieve a goal and suffer its loss.

The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.

I grew up amid violently white winters and green summers and roaring autumns. Now, in a place without such seasons, I’m stuck in a waiting room with the TV on the same channel all day, and I’m never called in for my appointment.

Giving up hope and submitting to suffering looks the same as achieving total detachment and surpassing the Buddha but for one detail: the smile. Remember to smile.

Aphorisms by Evan Esar

Evan Esar, an anthologist and collector of jokes and quips, described himself as a ‘humorologist.’ “I am not interested in dull stuff like the psychology of laughter,” he is quoted as saying in his 1996 New York Times obituary. “I am interested in classifying humor, in the nature and evolution of humor. I am a man of science.” His scientific pursuit of humor led him to classify laughter as deriving from five categories: wordplay, caricature, blunders, wit and nonsense. In the introduction to 20,000 Quips & Quotes, he wrote: “Where there is insight in citation, or wisdom winged with wit, especially from the world of letters, I have quoted liberally. For a good epigram not only makes a point, but a point to ponder.” Esar’s own sayings offer plenty of points to ponder, here accompanied by related sayings from authors no doubt featured prominently in his collections…

Think twice before you speak, and then you may be able to say something more insulting than if you spoke right out at once.

Think once before you give, twice before you accept, and a thousand times before you ask. —Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Admiration: Our feeling of delight that another person resembles us.

Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves. —Ambrose Bierce

Success is the good fortune that comes from aspiration, desperation, perspiration,and inspiration.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. —Thomas Edison

Character is what you have left when you’ve lost everything you can lose.

Character is fate. —Heraclitus

Statistician: A man who believes figures don’t lie, but admits that under analysis some of them won’t stand up either.

Doubt everything at least once, even the proposition that twice two is four. —Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

An epigram is the marriage of wit, and wisdom; a wisecrack, their divorce.

There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. —Dorothy Parker

Aphorisms by Franklin P. Jones

It’s been years since a reader first emailed me about Franklin P. Jones (1908–1980), and in that time I’ve only been able to find this collection of aphorisms from Great Thoughts Treasury and this bio from Answers.com. Jones worked as a journalist and then as a public relations executive in and around Philadelphia. His quips and sayings appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He’s part of the American tradition of homespun wisdom, and like many moral aphorists of the late 19th and early 20th century he found his metier as a columnist/newspaperman, like his predecessors Josh Billings (Geary’s Guide, pp. 13–16), Mark Twain (pp. 58–61), Ambrose Bierce (pp. 356–358) and “Kin” Hubbard (pp. 37–38), with whom he shares a similar wit and sensibility.


Hubbard wrote

The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.

Jones wrote

The most efficient labor-saving device is still money.

Hubbard wrote

Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.

Jones wrote

One thing you will probably remember well is any time you forgive and forget.

A selection of some of Jones’s other notable observations…

Nothing produces such odd result as trying to get even.

It’s a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.

Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.

What makes resisting temptation difficult, for many people, is that they don’t want to discourage it completely.

Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid.

Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.