by Mark Cohen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I browse the reference section of my local bookstore looking for any books to assist with my writing goals. I found M. J. Cohen’s The Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams (Penguin Books 2001) and stopped mid-stride, digging through my databanks for what-the-heck is an ‘epigram’. I should know that, right? The back flap says it’s ‘a short, sharp saying in prose or verse, frequently characterized by acidity or acerbity and sometimes by wisdom’.
Well that sounds good. I love that sort of conversation, enjoy using just that sort of retort in my blogging, comments and my novels.
I bought it and spent the next couple hours perusing the book. It includes an alphabetized list of epigrams by topic and theme, relaying both the quote, who said it, and in some cases the circumstances. I jomped to a few of my favorites to see what was included. Under ‘Excess':
Though shalt not carry moderation to excess (Arthur Koestler)
Men are born equal. By the next day, they no longer are. (Jules Bernard)
The only good government is a bad one in a Hell of a fright (Joyce Cary)
Thoughts of heroes were as good as warming pans (George Meredith)
For knowledge itself is power (Francis Bacon)
Under ‘Kings, Queens, and Leaders':
The true leader is always led (C.G. Jung)
These are fine, but not what I was looking for. I wanted fireworks, gasps, profound brilliance from names I’d recognize. I moved to the Index where quotees were listed. These–to me–are better:
- Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested (Winston Churchill on Education)
- Every human being invariably exercises all the power of which it is capable (Thucydides on Power)
- Civilization has made the peasantry its pack animal. The bourgeoisie in the long run only changed the form of the pack (Trotsky on Civilization)
- It is possible to be a writer, but not to become one (Herman Hesse in Writing)
- Sin is God’s private pasture; if you graze in its vicinity, you will run the risk of entering it (Mohammed)
What this told me about myself: I base wisdom heavily on who’s saying it. I had difficulty recognizing the brilliance of the epigram when it came from individuals I wasn’t familiar with, where the book turned into a page-turner when I discovered the index, allowing me to find people I knew and read their thoughts. As a result, this isn’t a reference book I use much–though I thought I would like seeing how respected intellects synopsized emotions and events in their simplest form.
What about you? Is that the way you catalog words? How important is it?
More posts about quotations:
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.