Short and to the Point

“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a wonderful aphorism.* In no small part, that is because it encapsulates a lot of what makes aphorisms themselves so delightful. Whether they are called fragments, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, or pensées, aphorisms can be awful lot of fun to read. When done well, they are pithy, profound, and memorable. But for those very reasons, they can be somewhat difficult to approach as serious reading.

One short phrase can provide enough insight to sustain a very deep discussion. And yet, it is often easy to consume multiple aphorisms at a time, like so many kernels of popcorn. This seems particularly true when the author has put his thoughts into a particular order. There is plenty of value in being able to flip open a book of aphorisms and read one at random, but that seems to discount the value of the author/editor’s decisions in arranging them. Consequently, there is a tension between attempting to read aphorisms as stand-alone thoughts or as a composed collection.

For example, in his book of aphorisms, Vectors, James Richardson wonders: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?” But that thought is number 369 out of 500. So is it really a serious suggestion on how he thinks the book should be read? An invitation to re-read Vectors with a new focus?

It seems unlikely that there is a “wrong way” to approach aphorisms, but it is worth giving some thought to the different ways in which they can be read. It is also probably important to remain aware of context; without context, a good aphorism may be no more than a cliché.

*Now is probably a good time to mention that the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” is spoken by a long-winded character in an extremely lengthy play. This irony is, perhaps, the best thing about it.

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Beer of the week: Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is a tasty little ale from New Belgium Brewing Company. It starts with light, flowery hops on the nose, but the taste is a nice balance between the hops and malt. It gets better as it warms slightly in the glass and the bready malt starts to shine through. Pretty darn good.

Reading for the week: Maximes and Moral Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld – These dozen selected aphorisms seem fairly representative of La Rochefoucauld’s work. And although each could stand on its own, together they exhibit a distinct line of thought. A couple suggestions on how to read La Rochefoucauld: the author himself suggests that “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities.” Lord Chesterfield recommends that one should “read in the morning some of La Rochefoucault’s [sic] Maxims; consider them, examine them well, and compare them with the real characters you meet in the evening.”

Question for the week: How do you like to read aphorisms?


Useless Joy

In his Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), the great Persian poet Ferdowsi starts the tragedy of the mighty paladin Rustem and his son Sohráb with a warning against reveling in youth:

“O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.”

This sentiment is reminiscent of several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It seems that Shakespeare often went on about the end of youth and the ravages of time. Sonnet #12 comes to mind, where Shakespeare writes:

“Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;”

Although it is important to confront our mortality it is equally important to carry on with the business of living. Ferdowsi says “Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours.” But can that be serious advice? Is joy ever truly useless? And if joy is occasionally useless, isn’t youth the most appropriate time for such useless joy? It seems likely that “tears of sorrow” and “sad reflection” are much more useless than joy, especially if we are quickly returning to “worthless dust.” There is time enough for sadness when we are dying or dead; joy in our youth ought to be encouraged.

Sir Dunkle

Beer of the week: Berghoff Sir Dunkle – This is a Munich-style dark lager that pours a deep red-brown. The aroma is of dark, ripe fruit. The flavor is mostly dark bread, with a surprisingly full body for a lager. Overall, a very good beer.

Reading of the week: Shah Nameh by Ferdowsi – At the end of Sonnet #12 Shakespeare suggests procreation as a remedy against mortality. But for Ferdowsi, even procreation is futile in the grand scheme. Of course, that might have something to do with the subject matter of the story he is telling. This reading is the beginning of a a tragic tale in which a man unwittingly kills his own son.

Question of the week: How can one strike the proper balance between joy and sad reflection?


Selective Reading

I have heard, and it is almost certainly true, that more new books are published every year than one could conceivably read in an entire lifetime. The same is probably true of blog posts. So cheers to you for spending some of your limited reading time on this blog. It is downright humbling to think about.

“Classics” make up the bulk of my (and consequently, this blog’s) reading. This is in no small part because the status of a work helps to single it out from the ever-growing piles of books out there. To be sure, there are some books that are regarded as classics but are not to my taste. But at least it’s a starting point. Because time is limited and the number of things to read never stops growing, we need help in deciding what to read.

Reader’s Digest has a bad reputation among many well-read folks, but I am not sure that it is well deserved. Obviously, it is somewhat unfair to an artist to publish his work abridged. We must presume that every word in a book was chosen with care, and any alteration changes the whole work. But as discussed above, there simply is not enough time in the day to read everything. So if a skillful editor can present us with a great book cut down to a manageable length, it may certainly be better than not reading any of it. Of course, it has to be done well, but that is why it is fair to say that editing is its own art. Like a translator, the editor is tasked with modifying the original work to make it accessible to his audience. In general, that probably means changing as little as possible. But it takes a very delicate touch to maintain the artist’s vision while still making the work manageable for the reader.

In his essay Of Studies, Francis Bacon writes that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others…” So there is a time and place for reading extracts or abridgments, just as there is a time and place for deep and thorough study.

The weekly reading on this blog is usually a small section of a longer work, taken out of context. There is usually a link to the complete text, but the advanced webpage statistics indicate that almost nobody clicks on those. Still, I think that this is a necessary way to get across certain ideas. Surely it is better to read a scene from a Shakespeare play or a canto by Pope than none at all. So I acknowledge that this blog does some harm to the original works by presenting only excerpts. But I think that consideration is far outweighed by the value of having short, curated samples available for people with limited time. At least that’s the hope.

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Beer of the week: Kozel Černý – Kozel is a very prominent Czech brand. This offering is their dark Munich-style lager. The head is foamy and quick to dissipate. The aroma is of sweet, dark roasted malt. Notes of caramel dominate the flavor. I would like a bit more hops to balance the sweetness. Nevertheless, Kozel Černý would be my go-to Czech beer.

Reading for the week: New Atlantis by Francis Bacon – Although Of Studies is cited above, that (entire) essay has already been a reading on this blog. A selection from New Atlantis seemed more appropriate, since it would be an excerpt from an unfinished work.

Question for the week: The quotation from Of Studies seems to indicate that each book in itself is worthy of close study, skimming, etc. But my conclusion is that how a book should be read has more to do with the time and interest of the reader than about the book itself. Which is more accurate?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?


Bitter Cold

When the weather turned cold on my last visit to the Czech Republic, I had many a glass of hot blackcurrant wine. But whether my winter warmer is mulled wine, hot rum, or high alcohol beer, I have a habit of thanking my drink with a line from Hamlet:

For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.

To be sure, I am rarely actually sick at heart, but I often feel more morose in the winter. Cold is more oppressive than heat, in my opinion. According to Dante’s Inferno, hell is icy cold at its core. The reason for this is simple: humans are creatures of heat. We would much rather live in a world of fire than in a world without fire.

Our bodies function best at temperatures in excess of 98 degrees although most of us live in ambient temperatures that are far lower. To some extent, we must bundle ourselves against the cold even on temperate days. Our evolutionary roots are embedded in equatorial Africa. We are drawn to the fire and turn our backs to the cold and the dark.

And to the extent that we are attracted to cold things, the attraction is usually with reference to heat. Downhill skiing is best when there is a roaring fire and a cocktail waiting for us après ski. An ice-cold beer is best on a hot summer day.

We are children of warmth. Bundle up and drink something with a little fire in it!

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Beer of the week: Novopacké Třeskuté – Last week I admitted my ignorance of the Polish language. This week I admit my ignorance of Czech. I think that the name of this beer might be a pun. I looked up “třeskuté” and found that it means “bitter”. As in English, (I think,) this could refer to the taste of the beer or the severity of the winter cold. Another hint that the name is a pun is the fact that this dark winter lager is not actually very bitter tasting. It really tastes more like toasted crackers: somewhat sweet and somewhat burnt. At 6.3% alcohol, this is definitely a winter warmer, and I have only seen it in 1.5 liter bottles. If that much beer can’t warm you, no amount can.

Reading for the week: Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1 – The tragedy of the melancholy Dane begins in the middle of a cold, dark night. This scene sets a tone for the entire drama.

Question for the week: What warms you?


Wedding’s Eve

I am getting married tomorrow. Naturally, I have much to think about and do that must take precedence over blogging about beer. So this will just be a short reflection on love and understanding.

It is almost cliche to say that men and women speak different languages. But it has been widely and rightly observed that cliches and stereotypes could never have become stock ideas if there were not at least some truth behind them. (Even the tired gag of somebody slipping on a banana peel is based in reality; there have been numerous slip-and-fall lawsuits related to banana peels.) So I know to expect that in married life, we will occasionally run up against a language barrier. I will not always understand her and she will not always understand me. But with patience, we may let love be our translator and eventually convey more in a look or a touch than could be expounded in volumes. And though we may never come to understand each other in every instance, each miscommunication and misunderstanding creates an opportunity for reconciliation and reconnection.

Our constant search for meaning and understanding in this world is part of what draws people together, and by seeking to understand others we may come to know ourselves better than we could in isolation. I happily look forward to communicating with, understanding, and loving my new wife in deeper, more profound ways as we continue our adventures together.

Cheers!

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Beer of the week: Long Trail Ale – This is one of the beers that we have selected for the reception. This German-style brown ale is very pleasant. The roasted malt gives it a bit of caramel-like sweetness. There is not a lot of hops bitterness to balance against the malt, but sometimes it is nice to find an American micro-brew that isn’t super hoppy. This beer is quite good, especially as a beer that everybody can enjoy.

Reading for the week: Henry V by William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 2 – After a vicious and bloody military campaign in France, King Harry professes his love to Princess Kate. They literally do not speak the same language, since he is English and she is French, but Harry refuses to let that stand in the way of love. “Now, fie upon my false French! By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate.”

Question for the week:


Memories

They say that smell is the sense with the closest link to memory. The other day, as I washed some beer glasses with a new dish soap, I was transported to a distant time and place. I was suddenly in a bubble bath in my parents’ home. I recognized the aroma immediately, even though it has certainly been over twenty years.

I have heard that one does not have memories of events, only memories of the last time that the event was remembered. That could explain how memories degrade or take on new, extraneous parts. For example, over the last few months, I listened to audio-books while walking from place to place. Later, I found myself thinking about specific chapters when I happened to be in the same place that I heard it. The sight of a particular building or shop would remind me of a character or a fictional village.

The intensely personal nature of these memory links is what really intrigues me. Such an association seems perfectly natural, but it is interesting that I am almost certainly the only person in the world with that specific connection. Of the thousands of people who walk past that shop, I am the only one who is reminded of that book. Let alone being reminded of a given chapter, line or character. The smell of that dish soap probably reminds at least some other people of their childhood bubble baths, but even that isn’t really the same. The memory for me includes the color of the tile and the feel of the washcloth, details that are unique to me.

 

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Beer of the week: Berghoff Winter Ale – Berghoff is a well known name in Chicago, but probably unheard of in most other places. Berghoff started as an Indiana brewery, but eventually became a downtown Chicago beer hall. Their Winter Ale is a real treat. It is a dark, full bodied beer. The aroma has hints of marshmallow and the sweet, cakey malt makes this beer a delicious winter drink.

Reading of the week: Winter by William Shakespeare – Winter brings with it both the undesirable and the desirable. Coughs and red, raw noses are an unavoidable part of this season, but there is also the cheerful “Tu-whoo” of owls and the smell of roasting… crabs? Maybe winter traditions have changed a bit since Shakespeare’s time.

Question of the week: Could the most pleasant parts of winter (hot chocolate, open hearth fires, skiing) be nearly so good without the less pleasant parts (runny noses, wet socks)? And are the memories of the pleasant and unpleasant inextricably linked?