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This review is taken from PN Review 33, Volume 10 Number 1, September - October 1983.

RANDOM READINGS John Gross, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms (Oxford) £9.50

'Short pithy statement or maxim,' says the dictionary, feeble as usual. 'Bugger off!' is a short pithy statement. 'Don't try to teach your grandmother to suck eggs' is a maxim. I don't think either would spring to mind when the word 'aphorism' is mentioned. Both maxim and aphorism indicate a general truth, but John Gross rightly distinguishes between them, finding the aphorism more subversive. Maxim implies precept or principle and is usually solemn, while aphorism, amusing or savage or merely perceptive, does suggest the presence of an ironic outsider, even a superior being. Well, he has to seem superior at this moment if we are to believe his brief remark can contribute to our store of wisdom.

It is surprising that in his introductory words about this 'form of literature' (no quibble about that) John Gross doesn't once mention wisdom as a necessary quality. As in every successful work of literature we are struck, in the good aphorism, by suggested possibilities, by depth beneath the utterance. As well as being condensed and forcible the aphorism has to surprise us as a terse expression of unexpected wisdom. Concentration impels this projectile, and there is in the aphorism a kind of Parkinson's Law which says truth expands to fill the space available-the space in this instance being the capacity we bring to it, our receptive space. We make of the aphorism what we can.

The best definition I know appears on the dustjacket (though not in the ...

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