Oxymoronica: A book review by Bob Morris

Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom From History’s Greatest Wordsmiths
Mardy Grothe
Collins/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2004)

The Wit and Wisdom of Incongruity

One of my best friends had an aunt — her name was Ginny — who, like Yogi Berra, could bring a lively conversation to a screeching halt with one brief comment. Aunt Ginny really was unaware of this (shall we say) unique talent. She was not trying to be funny, clever, etc. On the contrary, she offered what she considered to be a serious comment and everyone knew what her intended meaning was. For example:

“Quicker than you can count Jack Robinson.”
“Deader than a door knob.”
“She was born on a silver platter.”

My personal favorite:

“He’s on a treadmill to Bolivia.”

I am curious to know what Aunt Ginny would make of Grothe’s book. (She died many years ago.) She would no doubt agree with many observations but perhaps not see the humor in any of them.

Grothe has selected what he calls “oxymoronical” material from his vast collection of quotations. With regard to the term, his definition: “Oxymoronica, n.; A compilation of self-contradictory terms, phrases, or quotations; examples of oxymoronica appear illogical or nonsensical at first, but upon reflection, make a good deal of sense and are often profoundly true.” As other reviewers have correctly noted, many of the quotations which Grothe has assembled are hilarious, others insightful, still others cynical. All of them qualify as “oxymoronica.”

Among those forgotten or of which I was previously unaware, my personal favorites include:

“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”
John Kenneth Galbraith

“Hatreds are the cinders of affection.”
Sir Walter Raleigh

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”
Benjamin Disraeli

“What you get free costs too much.”
Jean Anouilh

“Good fiction is that which is real.”
Ralph Ellison

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Samuel Beckett (in Endgame)

Selections are organized within fourteen chapters, each of which has a generic subject such as “Sex, Love & Romance,” “Ancient Oxymoronica,” and “The Literary Life.” I presume to suggest that Grothe’s anthology be skimmed occasionally rather than read cover-to-cover.

In the Foreword, Richard Lederer offers these comments which serve as an appropriate conclusion to my review:

“Paradox is a particularly powerful device to ensnare truth because it concisely illuminates the contradictions that are at the very heart of our lives. It engages our hearts and minds because, beyond its figurative employment, paradox has always been at the center of of the human experience.”

Or, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, if people don’t want to appreciate oxymoronica, nobody’s going to stop them.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out The Portable Curmudgeon and The Return of the Portable Curmudgeon, both edited by Jon Winokur; also John M. Shanahan’s The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time (In Two Lines or Less) and Condensed Knowledge: A Deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, edited by Will Pearson.


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