Discussed in this essay:
Short Flights: Thirty-two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, edited by James Lough and Alex Stein. Schaffner Press. 236 pages. $16.95.
Last Aphorisms, by JPJ. Self-published. 88 pages. $9.95.
The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms, by James Geary. Bloomsbury. 229 pages. $16.
The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross. Oxford University Press. 394 pages. $27.95.
I don’t read prose so much as root through it for sentences in need of rescue. At my most conceited and delusional, I imagine myself a literary scavenger, recovering sentences that might otherwise be lost in an excess of surrounding sentences. I’ve memorized three passages from Rosemary Edmonds’s translation of Anna Karenina, one about Anna’s son: “She had not had time to undo, and so carried back with her, the parcel of toys she had chosen so sadly and with so much love the day before”; one about Constantine’s brother: “Constantine saw that it simply was that life had become unbearable to his brother”; and one about Karenin’s frustration that it is impossible to speak to Anna both casually and tenderly: “He would involuntarily assume his usual bantering tone, which jeered at those who spoke like that [i.e., sincerely]. And in that tone it was impossible to say what needed to be said to her.” Anna Karenina has been reduced in my imagination to these three perfect passages.