Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

Since there’s no plot, no characters to recall, no thesis statement or theme (beyond tongue-in-cheek hostility) to keep track of, this is perfect bathroom reading. Using only one word to describe it, I’d go with sardonic, a word, incidentally, not in this dictionary. Nor is sarcastic, cynical, acerbic, sacrilegious, or amusing. Yet this dictionary is all those things. If you enjoyed Woody Allen’s Getting Even or Side Effects, which I recommend (“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”) or Fran Lebowitz’s Social Studies or Metropolitan Life (“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”), then you might enjoy this book. Some choice selections, truncated:

Birth, n. – The first and direst of all disasters.
Egotist, n. – A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Friendless, adj. – Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.
Saint, n. – A dead sinner revised and edited.
Self-esteem, n. – An erroneous appraisement.
Twice, adv. – Once too often.
Year, n. – A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

You’ll find wittier definitions than these within, but they’re much longer. In several places, a single definition might take up an entire page. A limerick or a poem accompanies some.

Three quarters into the book, I realized why I’d put off finishing it; when it’s not contemptuously funny, it’s still contemptuous. The smirking tone wore on me after a while, and I had to offset the mood it generated with lighter reading. Recommended, but not in a single sitting. Sure, you’ll laugh; you’ll smile; but you’ll grimace too. Approach in high spirits. When spirits falter, bookmark. Rinse and repeat. Treat it as you would garlic or sour cream or chili powder; a little goes a long way.

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