The art of the aphorism with James Geary

BY EMMA JESZKE
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 8, 2010

Tomorrow at the Michigan Theater, the School of Art & Design’s Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speakers Series continues with a speaker whose presentation transcends what one may traditionally think of upon hearing the word “lecture.”

Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Writers Series: James Geary


Thursday at 5:10 p.m.
Michigan Theater
Free

James Geary, the founding editor of timeeurope.com and current executive editor of Ode Magazine, said his lecture is actually more of a performance during which audiences will be amused and engaged in an interactive setting. Geary’s performance will focus on a discussion of his one true love: aphorisms.

“A lot of people find the word a bit strange,” Geary said. “When people ask me what I do and I say ‘I write books about aphorisms,’ they say ‘Oh that’s fascinating, fascinating … what’s an aphorism?’ And then I say: It’s a short, witty philosophical saying like ‘I never let school interfere with my education’ — and then everyone knows immediately what it is.”

Other aphorisms Geary includes on his website jamesgeary.com include "In a crisis, inspiration is better than consolation," "Too many facts spoil the plot" and "Never be serious in public."

Geary’s love affair with what he calls the world’s “oldest written art form” began at the tender age of eight years old, when he discovered his first aphorisms on the Quotable Quotes page of Reader’s Digest. Ever since, he has been enamored with these short, potent phrases and would go on to have a career as a journalist and an author of two books on aphorisms: “The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism,” which made the New York Times Best Seller List, and “Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists.”

“People always say ‘Do what you love,’ and for me that certainly turned out to be a good decision,” Geary said.

Geary explained that his connection to this type of literature stems from the accessibility and relevance of the form.

“Aphorisms contain important information," he said. "And they contain, although it sounds cliché, wisdom that helps us lead our lives, helps us get through crises and helps us celebrate when we have something to celebrate.”

Geary plans to engage the audience with personal anecdotes about experiences with aphorisms and how they have helped to change his life. He believes that aphorisms are a “social form of literature,” and that this directly contributes to the success and longevity of the art form. Although people read aphorisms alone, the words are most vital and living when applied to experiences in everyday life and shared with others.

“Aphorisms are special because they’re one of the few forms of literature that is still part of the oral tradition, that people still exchange in daily life,” Geary said.

Geary’s obsession with aphorisms may seem disconnected from everyday life and from much of the arts, but this kind of creative niche is exactly what the Penny W. Stamps lecture series is all about.

Chrisstina Hamilton, director of the series, explained that it's focused on creativity and that the program brings in speakers to represent all types of creative professions. These speakers, Geary included, give students, faculty and the general public the opportunity to hear from practitioners who are actually contributing to the artistic world.

“Creativity is much broader than just the art world,” Hamilton said. “The series is grounds to focus on how people use creativity effectively in their work to make a difference in the world by transcending traditions and being progressive in some way.”

Hamilton thinks Geary will present an especially interesting performance as he discusses his passion for aphorisms and how they have impacted him personally and professionally.

“He is a juggler, so I think he takes the words that he is discussing and the ideas of the aphorism and brings it into a physical performance,” Hamilton said. “And he is highly entertaining.”