The Challenge of Affluence

by Harry on February 19, 2007

From Avner Offer’s The Challenge of Affluence, perhaps the best first paragraph of an academic book:

Affluence breeds impatience and impatience undermines well-being. This is the core of my argument. For detail and evidence, go directly to the chapters; for implications, to the conclusion, which also has chapter summaries.

I’ve been longing to read this book since I first heard about it (several years ago) but, on reading the first paragraph, felt obliged to lend it to someone else for several weeks. I’ll tell you all about it when I’m finished with it. Be patient.

Other great academic first paragraphs?

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Great Lines to Start and End to Books » ThingsAreGood: good news
02.23.07 at 5:28 pm
» Blog Archive » Friday Fun Link - Best Opening Paragraphs For Academic Titles (Feb 23, 2007)
02.23.07 at 11:03 pm
Great Academic Opening Sentences « Lifer On Earth
03.04.07 at 11:25 am



Matt 02.19.07 at 2:38 pm

Tractatus 1. The world is everything that is the case.


Ian D-B 02.19.07 at 2:56 pm

I can’t remember the author, but there is a history of the sword that begins with, “The history of man is the history of the sword.”


Ian D-B 02.19.07 at 2:58 pm

Sorry, that was wrong. Richard Burton, The Book of the Sword: “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.”


Kelly 02.19.07 at 3:11 pm

Oh wow – someone actually followed the advice (was it Foucault?) that “everything you need to know is in the conclusion”! I feel the need to own this book, on simple principle of approval and admiration…


Jake 02.19.07 at 3:18 pm

David Lewis, Counterfactuals:

`If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over‘ seems to me to mean something like this: in any possible state of affairs in which kangaroos have no tails, and which resembles our actual state of affairs as much as kangaroos having no tails permits it to, the kangaroos topple over. I shall give a general analysis of counterfactual conditionals along these lines.


Dan Collins 02.19.07 at 4:06 pm

I like the “with whom the writing of this book would not have been possible” dedication.


Jared 02.19.07 at 4:27 pm

“Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths–ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home…”


Delicious Pundit 02.19.07 at 4:46 pm

I like how “impatience undermines well-being,” and yet he provides a tip to readers too impatient to plow through the detail.


otto 02.19.07 at 5:06 pm

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

BTW, I didn’t realise that Rumsfeld was channeling Karl on “old Europe”.


Sam 02.19.07 at 5:40 pm

“The Way that can be put into words is not the real Way.” Opening line (subject to contested interpreration) of the Tao Te Ching. What can you write or say after that?


clew 02.19.07 at 6:04 pm

A great discovery solves a great problem but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem. Your problem may be modest; but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive faculties, and if you solve it by your own means, you may experience the tension and enjoy the triumph of discovery. Such experiences at a susceptible age may create a taste for mental work and leave their imprint on mind and character for a lifetime.

From the Preface to the First Printing of How to Solve It, G. Polya.

Offner’s paragraph would be even better without the second sentence.


lindsey 02.19.07 at 6:08 pm

In this book I shall show that there are no books.
Trenton Merricks, Objects and Persons


ron 02.19.07 at 6:12 pm

“Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive. But, beyond doubt, wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy: he hasn’t enough and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills and he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy.” (From Galbraith’s The Affluent Society)


tom s. 02.19.07 at 7:04 pm

Stretching the topic a little, but the best introductory few pages to an academic book I’ve read is from Ian Fleming (no not that one)’s Frontier Orbitals and Organic Chemical Reactions. He says:

“I can best show [the theory’s] importance by posing a number of familiar questions from a wide range of organic chemistry, to all of which — and to many more — the frontier orbital theory provides a satisfying answer”.

He then lists a dozen good questions, and you’re hooked (well, if organic chemistry is your thing, you are). I’ve often thought that all academic books should be compelled to start this way.


dearieme 02.19.07 at 7:17 pm

Pity he wasn’t patient enough to add the two extra commas that the para needs.


ben alpers 02.19.07 at 8:10 pm

I like how “impatience undermines well-being,” and yet he provides a tip to readers too impatient to plow through the detail.

He must simply be assuming that the reader is herself affluent. Given that the book costs $45, that’s not an unfair assumption!


harry b 02.19.07 at 8:42 pm

The commas are my fault – will fix.


radek 02.19.07 at 9:25 pm

How about great closing paragraphs?


Jon H 02.19.07 at 9:39 pm

Isn’t he kind of rehashing the work of, say, Buddha, among others?


Winston Smith 02.19.07 at 9:49 pm

Re: closing paras:

How about the Tractatus again?:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”


harry b 02.19.07 at 9:59 pm

jon h — if Buddha wrote an economic history of the postwar UK and US…. I think he regard himself as providing illumination (rather than rehashing) of that thesis, and he’s quite aware that its not completely original to him….


Chris Williams 02.19.07 at 10:10 pm

“On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned …”

Foucault _Discipline and Punish_ tr. Alan Sheridan.


lee 02.19.07 at 10:17 pm

“Supposing truth is a woman—what then?”

Nietzsche’s preface in Beyond Good and Evil


bza 02.19.07 at 10:56 pm

“In 1321, we read in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Stephen of Condom, a great deal of snow fell during the month of February. The lepers were exterminated. There was another great snowfall before the middle of Lent; then came a great rain.”

– Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies


radek 02.19.07 at 11:23 pm

Great. Now on to page 13 great paragraphs.


Maurice Meilleur 02.19.07 at 11:58 pm

Dunno about ‘academic’, but I met it for the first time in the academy—Rousseau, On the Social Contract:

I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall endeavour always to unite what right sanctions with what is prescribed by interest, in order that justice and utility may in no case be divided.

Or, better, the first paragraph of the first book:

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.


SG 02.20.07 at 2:45 am

Endings: doesn`t 1984 finish with that charming sentence about the jackboot on the face?

I was once told about a number theory textbook which started with a mathematical definition of its own page numbers (and presumably also the equation numbers, etc.) However, I never saw the book msyelf and the explanation was given to me by a physics lecturer, so probably wasn`t true.


Walt 02.20.07 at 3:20 am

sg: I think that occur near the end, but that it actually ends with “He loved Big Brother.”


emmanuelgoldstein 02.20.07 at 6:10 am

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

Aristotle, Metaphysics, 980a21-25.


bad Jim 02.20.07 at 7:25 am

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls despite every reason to suspect a Greek trick?…

The March of Folly, Barbara W. Tuchman.


tom seb 02.20.07 at 7:52 am

beware, i don’t think the rest of the book proves the first paragraph but i’ll wait to see what harry thinks


bad Jim 02.20.07 at 9:18 am

For a penultimate line in a novel, I’ll choose:

He considered a moment and then laughed. “Think of me with my nose in a book!”


Z 02.20.07 at 10:40 am

To the happy few, maybe Walt, if he is reading:

As the night sky, mathematics has two hemispheres: the archimedean hemisphere and the non-archimedean hemisphere. For some reasons, the latter hemisphere is usually under the horizon of our world, and the study of it is historically always behind the study of the former.

Kazuya Kato, Lectures on the approach to Iwasawa theory for Hasse-Weil L functions via BdR


the cubist 02.20.07 at 5:13 pm


Whether you are a dilettante or a professor, do not expect to find in any of these compositions any profound intention, but rather an ingenious jesting of the art to prepare you for bold playing on the harpsichord…Show yourself more human than critical, and thus you will increase your own pleasure…Live happily!’ In this direct, witty and genial manner, Scarlatti prefaced the publication of a number of his sonatas…”

–opening para of Denise Restout’s preface to “Landowska on Music.”


Martin 02.20.07 at 6:47 pm

“When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of marriage, death – by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery. But even the lesser events – a journey, labor, a visit – were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.”

J. Huizinga, Autumn of the Middle Ages


Jim Harrison 02.20.07 at 7:44 pm

“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.”

David L. Goodstein, States of Matter


Sam C 02.20.07 at 8:36 pm

‘This book is about solipsistic fear; that is, the fear that the external world of trees, tables, bricks and mortar may not exist at all. Solipsism as a settled system of belief is quite properly regarded as something absurd, or even comic; no one but a philosopher – no a lunatic philosopher – could believe that. But it sometimes happens that an idea which is in the strictest sense of the word incredible can prove a fertile source of disquiet (indeed, one of the ways of dealing with solipsistic fear is to stop flinching from the thought and try believing it instead).’ – A.D. Nuttall, A Common Sky.


Rachel 02.21.07 at 12:58 am

“THE LOUSE IS FOREMOST among the many important and dignified things that are made the subjects of raucous humor by the ribald.” Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice & History


Wayne 02.21.07 at 1:15 am

From a man rarely accused of writing well: the first paragraph of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:

“Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”

It still gives me shivers.


David Harlow 02.21.07 at 4:49 am

“Heredity and environment. They are the yin and yang, the Adam and Eve, the Mom and Pop of pop psychology. Even in high school I knew enough about the subject to inform my parents, when they yelled at me, that if they didn’t like the way I was turning out they had no one to blame but themselves: they had provided both my heredity and my environment.”

Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do : Parents Matter Less than You Think and Peers Matter More


yay! 02.21.07 at 5:06 am

Not exactly academic, but I’ve always been partial to Maistre’s opening in On God and Society:

“One of the greatest errors of a century which professed them all was to believe that a political constitution could be created and written a priori…”

Hey, did we try to do something like that in Iraq??


Chris Bertram 02.21.07 at 8:47 am

“To be groomed by a monkey is to experience primordial emotions: the initial frisson of uncertainty in an untested relationship, the gradual surrender to another’s avid fingers flickering expertly across bare skin, the light pinching and picking and nibbling of flesh as hands of discovery move in surprise from one freckle to another newly discovered mole. The momentary disconcerting pain of pinched skin gives way imperceptibly to a soothing sense of pleasure, creeping warmly outwards from the centre of atention. You begin to relax into the sheer intensity of the business, ceding deliciously to the ebb and flow of the neural signals that spin their fleeting way from periphery to brain, pitter-pattering their light drumming on the mind’s consciousness somewhere in the deep cores of being.”

Robin Dunbar, opening para of Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.


SG 02.21.07 at 1:28 pm

“I believe it was the sight of that old fool Gladstone, standing in the pouring rain holding his special constable’s truncheon as if it were a bunch of lilies, and looking even more like an unemployed undertaker’s mute than usual, that made me think seriously about going into politics. God knows I’m no Tory, and I never set eyes on a Whig yet without feeling the need of a bath, but I remember thinking as I looked at Gladstone that day: ‘Well, if that’s one of the bright particular stars of English public life, Flashy my boy, you ought to be at Westminster yourself.'”

From “Flash for Freedom”, George MacDonald Fraser. It’s not so much the dripping scorn that does it for me, as the promise of horror to come.


pedro 02.21.07 at 2:08 pm

Okay, not exactly the first paragraph, but the third:

“So we shall now explain how to read the book. The right way is to put it in your desk during the day, below your pillow at night, devoting yourself to the reading, and solving the exercises till you know it by heart. Unfortunately, I suspect the reader is looking for advice on how not the read, i.e. what to skip, and even better, how to read only some isolated highlights.”

From the monumental Classification Theory, by Saharon Shelah.


tom hurka 02.21.07 at 2:37 pm

“It was clear that the Grasshopper would not survive the winter, and his followers had gathered around him for what would no doubt be one of their last meetings. Most of them were reconciled to his approaching death, but a few were still outraged that such a thing could be allowed to happen. Prudence was one of the latter, and she approached the Grasshopper with a final plea. ‘Grasshopper,’ she said, ‘a few of us have agreed to give up a share of our food to tide you over till spring. Then next summer you can work to pay us back.’

“‘My dear child,’ responded the Grasshopper, ‘you still don’t understand. The fact is that I will not work to pay you back. I will not work at all. I made that perfectly clear, I thought, when the ant turned me away from his door. My going to him in the first place was, of course, a mistake. It was a weakness to which I shall not give in again.'”

The first two paragraphs of Bernard Suits’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, one of the loveliest philosophy books of the 20th century (and a special treat for Wittgenstein-haters).


tom s. 02.21.07 at 2:46 pm

My vote so far is for #36, which I have read before but had suppressed, along with all other memories of statistical mechanics.


gaw3 02.22.07 at 7:08 am

Last paragraphs: from Darwin’s Origin of Species (here, only the first sentence):

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of different kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

I first encountered this sentence at the entrance to main lecture hall of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.


Geoff K 02.22.07 at 1:32 pm

This has been my favorite first para for a long time:

“One day in the January of 1824, a young French professor named Jules Michelet, who was teaching philosophy and history, found the name of Giovanni Vico in a translator’s note to a book he was reading. The reference to Vico interested him so much that he immediately set out to learn Italian.”

— from To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson

(This is a great thread!)


Heathcliff 02.22.07 at 4:31 pm

“In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.” —Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


Charles Twardy 02.22.07 at 7:16 pm

“Chaos theory is not nearly as exciting as it sounds. How could it be?” Stephen Kellert, In the Wake of Chaos. (Quoting from memory, might be off slightly.)


Walt 02.22.07 at 7:21 pm

Z: That is a great opening.


Will Fitzgerald 02.23.07 at 11:48 am

Olin Shivers’ Acknowledgements to the Scsh Reference Manual:

Who should I thank? My so-called “colleagues,” who laugh at me behind my back, all the while becoming famous on my work? My worthless graduate students, whose computer skills appear to be limited to downloading bitmaps off of netnews? My parents, who are still waiting for me to quit “fooling around with computers,” go to med school, and become a radiologist? My department chairman, a manager who gives one new insight into and sympathy for disgruntled postal workers?

My God, no one could blame me — no one! — if I went off the edge and just lost it completely one day. I couldn’t get through the day as it is without the Prozac and Jack Daniels I keep on the shelf, behind my Tops-20 JSYS manuals. I start getting the shakes real bad around 10am, right before my advisor meetings. A 10 oz. Jack ‘n Zac helps me get through the meetings without one of my students winding up with his severed head in a bowling-ball bag. They look at me funny; they think I twitch a lot. I’m not twitching. I’m controlling my impulse to snag my 9mm Sig-Sauer out from my day-pack and make a few strong points about the quality of undergraduate education in Amerika.

If I thought anyone cared, if I thought anyone would even be reading this, I’d probably make an effort to keep up appearances until the last possible moment. But no one does, and no one will. So I can pretty much say exactly what I think.

Oh, yes, the acknowledgements. I think not. I did it. I did it all, by myself.


Muddler 02.23.07 at 1:52 pm

A profoundly humble first sentence and first paragraph given the importance to the world:

“We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.”

A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid
J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick


language hat 02.23.07 at 3:14 pm

The Mall in Washington, D.C., is a good deal less inviting in January than in April, when the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin burst into bloom and tourists loiter in the sun. But because the ways in which the Mall and its monuments give meaning to the events of American history are clearest in the winter—and because the story we have to tell is in many ways a wintry tale—it may not be amiss for us to begin on the Mall with the trees bare and the skies gray, walking down the path that leads from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam War Memorial. In spring, the transition between the two would be muted by the trees and plantings of Constitution Gardens. In winter, the contrast is stark and unmistakable.

—Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (2005)


language hat 02.23.07 at 3:17 pm

The German destruction of the European Jews was a tour de force; the Jewish collapse under the German assault was a manifestation of failure. Both of these phenomena were the final product of an earlier age.

—Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1985)


language hat 02.23.07 at 3:21 pm

Language plays a great part in our life. Perhaps because of its familiarity, we rarely observe it, taking it rather for granted, as we do breathing or walking. The effects of language are remarkable, and include much of what distinguishes man from the animals, but language has no place in our educational program or in the speculations of our philosophers.

—Leonard Bloomfield, Language (1933)

(Language, of course, was about to take over philosophy, and thanks in no small part to Bloomfield it would find its place in American education, but people are still woefully ignorant about it.)


winna 02.23.07 at 3:26 pm

A dissertation I read last semester was dedicated to the student’s advisor and graduate department head, on the grounds that ‘were it not for the narrow-minded devotion to petty bureaucracy they demonstrated, this dissertation would have been completed six months earlier.’

I hesitate to include the cite since I figure that the student’s dedication page burned his bridges badly enough he doesn’t need me broadcasting it again.


language hat 02.23.07 at 3:38 pm

The island of Sicily lies as a triangle across the centre of the Middle Sea, dividing it into two and almost forming a bridge that joins Italy with Africa. Few islands have been better favoured by nature. Its climate is mild and its scenery beautiful, with rugged mountains and smiling valleys and plains. Even the frequency of earthquakes and the ever-present menace of Mount Etna, though they have borne constant witness to the caprice of natural forces, have in compensation added to the richness of the soil. Man has been less kindly to the island. Geography placed it to be an inevitable battleground between the forces of Europe and Africa and to be an essential possession for anyone who would rule the Mediterranean world. Its story is one of invasions, wars, and tumults.

—Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century (1958)


language hat 02.23.07 at 3:44 pm

To understand the South is to feel the pathos in its history. This aura of pathos is more than a delusion of historians, more than the vague sensation one gets when looking down an avenue of somber, moss-draped live oaks leading to stately ruins or to nothing at all. For southerners live in the shadow of a real tragedy; they know, better than most other Americans, that little ironies fill the history of mankind and that large disasters from time to time unexpectedly help to shape its course.

—Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956)


language hat 02.23.07 at 3:52 pm

Suppose that one day, after a nuclear war, an intergalactic historian lands on a now dead planet in order to enquire into the cause of the remote little catastrophe which the sensors of his galaxy have recorded. He or she — I refrain from speculating on the problem of extraterrestrial physiological reproduction — consults the terrestrial libraries and archives which have been preserved, because the technology of mature nuclear weaponry has been designed to destroy people rather than property. Our observer, after some study, will conclude that the last two centuries of the human history of planet Earth are incomprehensible without some understanding of the term ‘nation’ and the vocabulary derived from it. This term appears to express something important in human affairs. But what exactly? Here lies the mystery. He will have read Walter Bagehot, who presented the history of the nineteenth century as that of ‘nation-building’, but who also observed, with his usual common sense: ‘We know what it is when you do not ask us, but we cannot very quickly explain or define it.’ This may be true for Bagehot and for us, but not for extragalactic historians who have not the human experience which appears to make the idea of the ‘nation’ so convincing.

—E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (1990)


King Bee 02.23.07 at 4:23 pm

Another Wittgensteinian one, from “Culture and Value:”

We tend to take the speech of Chinese for inarticulate gurgling.


Jeff 02.23.07 at 5:02 pm

could someone please tell me what startws with the line “I speak of arms and the man”? It’d make a sweet tattoo (to join my existing one: the line “I am constant as the northern star” from Julius Caesar across my back), but I’d like to know where I first heard it….


KRS 02.23.07 at 6:15 pm

Jeff (62) –

It’s the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid:
Arma virumque cano.
Arms and the man I sing.


Sam 02.23.07 at 6:47 pm

Travel and travellers are two things I loathe–and yet, here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions. But at least I’ve taken a long while to make up my mind to it: fifteen years have passed since I left Brazil for the last time and often, during those years, I’ve planned to write this book, but I’ve always been held back by a sort of shame and disgust. So much would have to be said that has no possible interest: insipid details, incidents of no significance. Anthropology is a profession in which adventure plays no part; merely one of its bondages, it represents no more than a dead weight of weeks or months wasted en route; hours spent in idleness when one’s informant has given one the slip; hunger, exhaustion, illness as like as not; and those thousand and one routine duties which eat up most of our days to no purpose and reduce our “perilous existence” in the virgin forest to a simulacrum of military service…

— Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques


han 02.23.07 at 7:20 pm

“A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad. The inhabitants of different countries keep quarreling fiercely with each other and kings go on losing their temper in the most furious way. Our churches are attacked by the heretics and then protected by the Catholics; the faith of Christ burns bright in many men, but it remains lukewarm in others; no sooner are the church-buildings endowed by the faithful than they are stripped bare again by those who have no faith. However, no writer has come to the fore who has been suffieienctly skilled in setting things down in an orderly fashion to be able to describe these events in prose or in verse. In fact, in the towns of Gaul the writing of literature has declined to the point where it has virtually disappeared altogether. Many people have complained about this, not once but time and time again. “What a poor period this is!” they have been heard to say. “If among all our people there is not one man to be found who can write a book about what is happening today, the pursuit of letters realy is dead in us!” I have often thought about these complaints and others like them. I have written this work to keep alive the memory of those dead and gone, and to bring them to the notice of future generations. My style is not very polished, and I have had to devote much of my space to the quarrels between the wicked and the righteous. All the same I have been greatly encouraged by certain kind remarks, which, to my no small surprise, I have often heard made by our folk, to the effect that few people understand a rhetorical speechifier, whereas many can follow a blunt speaker.”

-Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks


Woodlawn 02.23.07 at 8:05 pm

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” –Karl Marx, Capital, opening paragraph of Vol. 1.


jrochest 02.23.07 at 8:13 pm

“I began with the desire to speak with the dead.

This desire is a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies, a motive organized, professionalized, buried beneath think layers of bureaucratic decorum: literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans. If I never believed the dead could hear me, and if I knew that the dead could not speak, I was nonetheless certain that I could re-create a conversation with them…”

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations.


language hat 02.23.07 at 10:44 pm

Toward the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoat of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his Boston niece to the tone of things.

—Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1973)


rhomboid goatcabin 02.23.07 at 11:43 pm

The closing paragraph of William James’s “The Will to Believe” (1896):

“I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him. ‘What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world?… These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them… In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark… If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.’ [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]”


language hat 02.24.07 at 1:17 am

In the village with the prosaic name of “Railroad” (Zheleznodorozhnyi) just outside of Moscow, there is a curious hillside above the river Pekhorka, just behind the buildings of the once supersecret Moscow Aerodynamic Laboratory. At first glance the steep terrain appears wild and overgrown, but closer inspection reveals traces of extensive architectural structures beneath the tangle of vine and brambles: a marble esplanade, flanked by stairs and balustrades, leading down to a lower terrace emplaced with fountains and pools, all long dry and derelict. This finely carved wreckage was once the central adornment of the summer home of the first family of Russian capitalism, the Riabushinskys of Moscow. These ruins serve as an architectonic symbol of the fate of the early Russian entrepreneurs: enormous creative efforts and impressive achievements destined to become a stairway to nowhere. Or so it seemed until recently.

—James L. West, Merchant Moscow (1998)


dearieme 02.24.07 at 8:12 am

These are all so wordy. Surely the very best writers can do much of the business with the title? I particularly like the chemistry book “Nonexistent Compounds”.


han 02.24.07 at 9:17 am

“Every art and applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim.”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics


han 02.24.07 at 9:18 am

Here is my favorite, from Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus:

“There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act.”


Geoff K 02.24.07 at 3:18 pm

And lest we neglect the best first lines of essays, how about Orwell on Gandhi:

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

(Actually, I cheated: the sentence goes on from there, but it sounds well this way.)


LiferOnEarth 02.24.07 at 5:54 pm

“Life is Difficult” from “The Road Less Travelled ” by M Scott Peck. This is the ultimate truth, the root of all that we do or believe in. In literature, the entire foreword of Ayn Rand’s ” The Fountainhead”.

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