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“The Waste Books” by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

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Certain types of works are exceedingly difficult to review. They offer neither stories, as do most works of fiction, nor do they offer arguments, like most works of non-fiction. Instead, they offer only themselves. They cannot be judged fairly by standards created to judge and evaluate a work as easily as the previously mentioned types of works can. They are neither here nor there, as someone unafraid of cliches might say. Nonetheless, these works deserve to be read, and one way of assuring continued readership is to attempt to construct a review, however difficult it may be, of a work of this type.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books is such a work. This work is a collection of aphorisms, observations, quotes, and various other miscellanea that Lichtenberg thought worth writing down in his “waste books” during his lifetime. Nothing in The Waste Books was intended for publication: they are merely ideas that fermented in Lichtenberg’s mind and which he thought worth writing down for his own benefit.

And what are the various natures of these ideas? Lichtenberg was a scientist by trade, though as translator R. J. Hollingdale states “He was a mathematician, physicist and astronomer by profession, and a satirist in his spare time: but the work he published would not have served to keep his name and presence alive beyond his own era.” So it is not due to this that he has his (limited) fame. Rather, he is known for the profound aphorisms and observations that he wrote down in his journals, which cover such subjects as art, philosophy, theology, history, and even an entry or two on the current social scandal of the day.

Perhaps a few quotes to illustrate the style and range of his ideas:

The grocer who weighs something is as much engaged in putting the unknown quantity on the one side and the known on the other as is the algebraist.

He is already in his forties and is still wearing red linings and bright colors. Thus he will never get into the lexicon of history, either as a genius or a rascal.

What is called acute knowledge of human nature is mostly nothing but the observer’s own weakness reflected back from others.

These examples scarcely do justice to Lichtenberg’s writings, but they do demonstrate both the tone of his aphorisms and the breadth of subjects which fascinated him.

What would a reader gain from spending the time to read Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books? Certainly not an all-encompassing philosophy. Although this work reads very much like a work of Nietzche, who was influenced by Lichtenberg, there is no philosophical idea driving the thoughts and observations. Rather, they are just personal thoughts formulated in a witty way. And in this is perhaps the greatest value of Lichtenberg’s work. In in reading it one may be inspired to collect their own thoughts in this manner, and possibly even pass them along for others to read.

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