Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of December 3rd, 2007

If you haven’t yet read Andrew Sullivan’s love letter to Barack Obama on the cover of the December issue of The Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com), hurry up before he changes his mind. You wouldn’t want to miss his brilliant analysis of the national front-runners: “A Giuliani-Clinton matchup, favored by the media elite, is a classic intragenerational struggle—with two deeply divisive and ruthless personalities ready to go to the brink. Giuliani represents that Nixonian disgust with anyone asking questions about, let alone actively protesting, a war. Clinton will always be, in the minds of so many, the young woman who gave the commencement address at Wellesley, who sat in on the Nixon implosion and who once disdained baking cookies. For some, her husband will always be the draft dodger who smoked pot and wouldn’t admit it. And however hard she tries, there is nothing Hillary Clinton can do about it. She and Giuliani are conscripts in their generation’s war. To their respective sides, they are war heroes.” If you need more bait, here’s one of Mr. Sullivan’s better lines about his current crush: “He does not smell, as Clinton does, of political fear.”

SIX YEARS BEFORE he announced the death of the author in his famous essay of the same name, Roland Barthes asked a question most of us take for granted, except perhaps during the halftime show of the Super Bowl. What Is Sport? (Yale University Press, $15) is a newly translated text Barthes wrote for a short documentary film produced in Canada in 1961—but before it goes back into the file marked “miscellaneous,” cast a glance at the lively “Translator’s Afterword,” in which the eminent Richard Howard, “translator of many of Roland’s books over many years,” gives us a glimpse of what their collaboration was like. He remembers the transatlantic phone calls in which he would ask Barthes about the source for a particular reference: “‘You cite—in French—a sentence from Hobbes, Roland—where can I find the original?’ ‘No idea, mon petit Richard; just make the English sound like Hobbes.’” It seems the author’s days were already numbered.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here’s how the oracular Barthes answers his own question: “What is sport? What is it then that men put into sport? Themselves, their human universe. Sport is made in order to speak the human contract.” Got that?

“LIKE SUSHI, APHORISMS come in small portions, are exquisitely formed, and always leave you wanting more”—that’s James Geary’s delicately aphoristic way of suggesting that scarfing too many bite-size servings of wit and wisdom at one sitting will give you a bellyache. Which is why he offers, in Geary’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Aphorists (Bloomsbury. $19.95), only a portion of each aphorist’s actual output: Two dozen or so seems to be the limit, even from the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Dr. Johnson, Emerson and Twain, who exhaled adages with every breath. But the virtue of Mr. Geary’s guide isn’t the familiar faces (quoth Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again”), but rather the legion of unknowns: Les Coleman (“Glass is silent until broken”), Yahia Lababidi (“Impulses we attempt to strangle only develop stronger muscles”), Antonio Porchia (“He who makes a paradise of his bread makes a hell of his hunger”). Unlike sushi, aphorisms come in every flavor.

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