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Keep it short: Aphorisms, essays and stories for the Post-modern world

“Word in the water”, otherwise known as the “London Book Barge”, is a characteristic delight of our city centre.


  Steve Latham


Now permanently moored on Regents Canal in Kings Cross, it is a splendid, serendipitous, blend of new and used books.

Recently I found a copy of the “Oxford book of aphorisms”. Sorely tempted to buy it, I was dissuaded, by my long-suffering wife.

She suffers, not-so-silently, from teetering piles of old volumes in odd corners of our house in Islington.

She’s recently prevailed on me to begin donating rarely consulted books to the local charity shop.

What escapes her notice is that fresh reinforcements are constantly joining my depleting stocks, from my secret shopping forays.

The “Book of aphorisms”, however, set me thinking, not about the shortness of life, but the shortness of the literary form.

The aphorism is a distinctive genre: short, pithy, epigrams – often a one-liner, other times a brief paragraph.

To the point, and often wittily written. Nearly always expressing neatly a single thought on a specific subject.

The book, when I examined it, however, contained few genuine aphorisms; most were quotations, albeit succinct, from longer works.

Nevertheless, some, like Montaigne or Nietzsche, are famous for writing in aphorisms. Others, such as Raymond Carver, are noted for their commitment to the short story. Although his was perhaps only a habit left-over from the creative writing course, where he learned his craft.

But I have lately become fond of such condensed writing. It seems, to me, that if something can’t be said briefly, it’s not worth saying.

I find I simply don’t have the patience, any more, for wading through long tomes, whether of fiction or fact. Life is too short.

Moreover, there seems to be a renaissance of the essay form, according to Rachel Cooke, writing in The Guardian.

New collections have been published, from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Solnit and Zadie Smith. Sometimes what needs to be said, can only be said in short-form.

Brian Dillon has also written an entire book about, what he calls, Essayism; composed, naturally, of a collection of actual essays.

He defines an ‘essay’, as an ‘attempt’; not a finished work. In an essay, we try to express some, perhaps tentative, thoughts. Experimental. Fragmentary.

Such reflection is also reflexive: highly personal, involved and committed; not necessarily light-hearted or jovial.

It plugs into our familiarity with soundbites, blogs and Twitter (already a form of aphorism). Always on-the-go, we don’t have time for lengthy rumination, just something to ‘dip into’.

Yet, we still want to be stimulated, if it doesn’t take too much time, or go too deep. Our collective attention span has declined so much, we can only take short hits of literature.

No matter how skilful such writing may be, I suspect that our, and my, current preference for short form literature is a product of a butterfly mind.

The essay suits our post-postmodern epoch: characterised by uncertainty, shunning the dense philosophical treatise, but hungering, once again, to explore matters of major note.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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