Keeping it short: Richardson distills wit in aphorisms

June 14, 2002 9:43 a.m.

a world flooded with marketing slogans, sound bytes and self-help lists, Professor of English and Creative Writing James Richardson admits to having had moments of concern about how his own book of one-liners -- a collection of 500 aphorisms -- would be received. He even wondered whether bookstores would shelve the volume with poetry, philosophy or humor.

He need not have worried. "Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays," which was published in 2001 by Ausable Press, is selling well and has dovetailed nicely with his collection "How Things Are: Poems," published in 2000. In recognition of his literary achievements, Richardson is one of eight writers this year to receive an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Richardson jokes that aphorisms are the "perfect literary form for someone with a short attention span." They are direct, witty and often paradoxical. They can be great fun to write -- Richardson confesses that some of his impetus for this kind of writing is to "make cracks," and he enjoys getting laughs at readings. "Some people find poetry inaccessible," he said, "but many people tell me that they 'get my aphorisms right away,' and they find that appealing."

Aphorisms may be brief, but they are never lightweight. Distilling insight and wit into the smallest possible expression is a challenge that has inspired numerous writers over the centuries. It was French author Frangois La Rochefoucauld, writing aphorisms in the 17th century about vanity and other human failings, who turned Richardson on to the form.

"Back in 1993, I was looking at Montaigne for an essay when a note sent me to the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, which I read not only with delight, but with eager disagreement," he said. "Soon, aphorisms were fizzing up in response to whatever I was reading -- which was, more and more, Antonio Porchia, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and the Oxford Book of Aphorisms."

To read the full story in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin and to see some examples of aphorisms from the book, click here .

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601