The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Fun with Aphorisms

December 28, 2007
Washington, DC

My draft of the Tom Sawyer Reader's Guide is due in mid-January, so I've got Twain on the brain. Each of our guides contains a few choice quotations from the author in question. The problem with Twain, naturally, is keeping the number of possible quotables somewhere down in the low hundreds.

Today I'm kicking myself for not bringing in my copy of the new book Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists. I just dipped into this chrestomathy last night, and of course Twain is good for at least a dozen or more entries. Plus, NEA Media Arts Director Ted Libbey just walked in here and put in a good word for his favorite: "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Me, I've always had a soft spot for, "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry." Here are a few more contenders, along with an observation or two for or against:

"'Classic.' A book which people praise and don't read." -- Like many of the great Twain apothegms, this one comes from Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar. It's certainly appropriate to The Big Read, but maybe a mite too defeatist for our purposes.

"Each person is born with one possession which outvalues all his others -- his last breath." I've never seen this one before. It captures well the peculiar Twain morbidity that makes almost every laugh sting -- as does the following:

"Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody." That's vintage Twain, pure black metaphor, without the usual dusting of comedy this time. I'll never look at the night sky in quite the same way.

Yet none of these plums may make it into the Reader's Guide, which generally runs to quotes either about writing or taken from the book at hand. Not that Tom Sawyer is any slouch in the quotability department, mind you. Just rereading the book this week, I've come across several that loom as Reader's Guide timber:

"Rules governing literary art require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others." That's from Twain's takedown of Last of the Mohicans author James Fenimore Cooper, and there are 18 other rules where that came from. I urge you to seek them out at

"She would be sorry some day -- maybe when it was too late. Ah, if he could only die temporarily!" In his two most enduring books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its habitually underrated partner, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both title characters essentially attend their own funerals. To paraphrase Ian Fleming: Once is happenstance, but twice is enemy action. For Twain to use this scenario twice attests to the spell it always held over him. That he could use it to create two such different moods -- robustly comic for Tom, "powerful lonesome" for Huck -- only confirms his incomparable gift.

"There were some that believed [Tom] would be President, yet, if he escaped hanging." Here is Tom Sawyer in a snapshot: half Eagle Scout, half outlaw. This rift may better reflect Twain himself than even the more famous, better-realized character of Huck. The presidential Tom feels closer to the man Twain's wife wanted him to be: upstanding, honorable, well-liked, romantic. It's mainly away from Livy that we get the other Twain, the one closer to Huck, the bad boy at the cotillion.

The final apportioning of Twain quotes awaits the first draft of my guide next month, but the foregoing should give some earnest of the happy hell I'm in, trying to pick and choose which aspects to emphasize of this titanic, protean, Janus-faced genius. The language here is deliberately mythic, as befits a man whose influence still shadows American literature a hundred years later. I can't wait to get on the road next fall and see what 21st-century America makes of him?