Waste Not, Want Not

the waste booksThe Waste Books by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, translated by R.J. Hollingdale

NYRB, 1990

Reviewed by Sarah J. Sloat

“Ideas too are a life and a world.”

The Waste Books is a collection of 1,085 aphorisms and other short writings by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a curious German hunchback who had a crater on the moon named after him. He was primarily a scientist, but also a satirist, and like any academic he wrote and sought publication. But Lichtenberg’s best work is a book he never intended to publish, a compilation of his observations, thoughts and reflections mostly in the form of aphorisms.

“I would give something to know for precisely whom the deeds were really done of which it is publicly stated they were done for the Fatherland.”

“He who says he hates every kind of flattery, and says it in earnest, certainly does not yet know every kind of flattery.”

Arthur Schopenhauer called Lichtenberg someone who enjoyed thinking “for his own instruction,” and in one longer entry, Lichtenberg says we shouldn’t go to bed without having learned something that day, and he doesn’t mean a vocabulary word. Sometimes Lichtenberg’s notes and reflections are expressed with bite and wit, a typical characteristic of aphorisms.

“Because he always neglected his own duties he had time to observe which of his fellow citizens neglected theirs and to report the fact to the authorities.”

“The man was such an intellectual he was of almost no use.”

Lichtenberg began his “waste books” in 1765 and continued until his death in 1799. The name comes from the ledgers English merchants used to record transactions as they occurred. The entries obey no particular order: They aren’t arranged by topic or theme. They’re a running log of thoughts, which keeps the collection vibrant and surprising.

Lichtenberg nevertheless had some pet topics, including:

Morality: “Before we blame we should first see whether we cannot excuse.”

Society: “There are countries where it is not uncommon for officers who have served well in a war to be reduced in rank when peace arrives. Would it not be a good thing if in certain departments of government the officials, or some of them, were reduced in rank whenever war breaks out?”

Books: “Nowadays we already have books about books and descriptions of descriptions.”

Education: “Diminution of one’s needs is something that certainly ought to be inculcated in youth. ‘The fewer needs one has the happier one is’ is an old but much-neglected truth.”

And human nature: “The most perfect ape cannot draw an ape; only man can do that; but likewise, only man regards the ability to do this as a sign of superiority.”

Some of the aphorisms refer to something outside any frame available to the reader, which doesn’t make them less satisfying:

“What leaning on your right elbow means after leaning on your left elbow for an hour.”

The Waste Books is a thoughtful, funny and enriching read that has inspired many writers and thinkers, including Susan Sontag. It was written in the 18th Century, but has yet to get old. I would love to find it in doctor’s waiting rooms, or at airport gates in place of newspapers. I have given it as a gift, and its arrangement of people, peccadillos and willow trees has helped me fall asleep more effectively than any tedious sheep-counting.

“Someone described a row of willow-trees planted at a little distance from one another thus: first there stood one tree, then none, then again one and then again none.”

Sarah J. Sloat lives in Germany, where she works in news, writes poetry, and reads whatever appeals to her. She was an early sinophile, and has also lived in the remote countries of China, Italy and Kansas. Sarah’s poems and prose have appeared in print and online publications, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North and Whiskey Island. Her chapbook of book and text-related poems, Inksuite, is available from Dancing Girl Press, which will also publish Heiress to a Small Ruin in late 2015. 

The Waste Books at New York Review Books

Sarah J. Sloat at EIL

Review of Inksuite by Sarah J. Sloat 

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