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The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms

17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1582346168
ISBN-10: 158234616X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

What a pleasant, personal, thoughtful little book--and on such an unlikely subject. "Aphorisms are the original oracles," Geary writes, dating back to a time when books were few and people who could read them fewer still. The culture of the world was oral--this was in the time of Lao-tzu, the possibly mythical Chinese scholar--and a wise saying was passed on, down the generational line, until it became, well . . . an aphorism, a small statement that reveals a larger truth. There are rules, the author tells us, for aphorisms, five of them, in fact. Keep it short, definitive (no waffling allowed), and personal. It should have a twist, some hidden meaning or surprise. And it must be philosophical in nature, forcing you to contemplate how universal truths are hidden in the particulars of daily life. Naturally, Geary's account is full of wonderful aphorisms ("the limits of my language mean the limits of my world"), and Geary introduces the reader to some of history's key aphorists, including Buddha, William Blake, and (of course) Benjamin Franklin. Delightful. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (October 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 158234616X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582346168
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,185,255 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Geary is the author of 'I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World' as well as the New York Times best-selling 'The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism' and 'Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists'.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By angela bardoe on March 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was amazing! Not only did it include quirky, enlightening, and thought-prokoking aphorisms, but it also gave a background about the writer of the aphorisms too. needless to say, this has sent me on numerous tangents wanting to learn more. I have bought four or five other books since based on what I read here. I'm sure I will be reading this one over and over again. Couldn't reccommend it enough.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Sejanus on April 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
James Geary explores the history and development of aphoristic expression in this useful little book, and he does so by both entertaining and informing in the way aphorisms do. His last chapter is about the Jefferson Bible, and it sums up his project very nicely. As Geary concludes in the end, "aphorisms are the elixir of life," for only they "tell it like it really is." So reading Geary's book can be like walking through a minefield populated with the most exquisite fauna, a bracing and hazardous experience that is also filled with wonder. Those who live in the warm embrace of received wisdom, and who comfort themselves with rosey reliance on conformity in thought and deed, will not enjoy this journey. But as the book points out in quoting Jenny Holzer, "playing it safe can cause a lot of damage in the long run." Reading this book now after having read many of the authors Geary surveys, and having learned to my delight of those unknown to me, I was encouraged to press on in my own way of thinking, to stop doubting myself. There is not a self-help book in the world that will bully you into your sense the way Nietzsche or Chamfort can with an absolute economy of words. Geary's book was such a breath of fresh air, especially in this age of spin and lies, because he brings the reader face to face with those who spoke directly without apology about the truth of the human condition.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on December 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I understand Mr. Geary well, for I have also loved and cherished Aphorisms from my childhood.
The idea of finding 'wisdom' and 'insight into life' in one brief memorable sentence has long been part of my reading and thinking.
I do not know however, if I would , exactly accept his definition of the Aphorism as it seems to me that there are 'Aphorisms' which do not require some kind of 'twist' or ' surprise' but simply by their profundity overwhelm and reverberate in our consciousness.
Consider Pascal's " The silence of these infinite spaces casts me into dread" or Wittgenstein's " Of that which we cannot speak, we must be silent".
And as I say this I wonder if I am not perhaps going beyond the bounds of the 'Aphorism' and simply assuming that it contains 'all memorable statements'.
In any case there is much to be learned and enjoyed in this historical excursion into one of Literature and Life's most delightful forms.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By J. M. Hannam on January 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I tend to avoid cliches like the plague. I find them to be hypocritical, seldom usefull, and stereotypcial. Cliches are over utilized today in society for many reasons. One; most people are too lazy to read, and two; few care about expanding their palette of knowledge.

My faith in the wisdom of succint phrases had nearly fizzled out until my eyes beheld James Geary's work of genius. The book commences with a short biographical sketch of Geary's interest in aphorisms and proceeds to define what exactly an aphorism is.

He then designs the book chronologically. So as one reads the book they are traveling through an aphorism timeline. Geary first outlines the great sage aphorists, beginning with Lao-tzu, Budda, up too Muhammad.

The book continues through time briefly outlining the various aphorists up to present day. Geary provides the reader with a biographical taste of the various aphorists and leaves you hungering for more. The World in a Phrase is a quick read packed with nuggets of wisdom one can use over and over again.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover
What a gem of a book this is.I have enjoyed and in a rather loose fashion,collected them for as long as I remember hearing them as a child.I often wonder who made them up in the first place;a wonderment which only becomes greater with time.I don't remember what was the first one I ever heard ;maybe my Mom telling me that "If you're going to tell lies you'll need an awfully good memory.",or my Dad saying "Haste makes waste".It seems some are forgotten while others stick like glue.

Geary makes a noble attempt to put order and reason into this great use of language.Aphorisms are used by all cultures, in all fields of endeavors,all levels of education;it doesn't matter where you go, you'll find them.The author leans in his discussions to the great leaders,thinkers and writers of history but Aphorisms are as much the property of the most common and uneducated of people as they are of the famous.One of the common elements of them is that of wisdom and that can be found in all walks of life.

The author has been a long time fan of them and even tried his hand at composing them.He gives us a sample of his attempts;

"Not too many people live in the desert."

"Sometimes,two goldfish in a bowl are enough."

He tells us one of his all time favorites is;

"I have often been forced on my knees by the overwhelming conviction that there is no place else to go"-Abraham Lincoln

Then there's one that he thinks about every day;

"The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth."

He attempts to write the 5 Laws of Aphorisms;

1 It must be brief.
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