Book Review: Proverbs, Promises, And Principles

Proverbs, Promises, and Principles:  A Collection Of Useful And Inisghtful Thoughts To Brighten Your Life And Conversation, by Vern McLellan

In the well-regarded novel Middlemarch, one of the many poignant ironies of the story is the bank of the titular town having as its motto “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” which itself comes from the corpus of Hebrew wisdom literature, although a bit of wisdom wildly inappropriate to serve as the motto of a bank which made its money out of borrowing and lending.  This book suffers from a similar difficulty, in that at its core it represents the attempts of a man to provide a selection of short and often superficial proverbs taken from a mixture of sources including biblical ones, and then placed without much of a context on a small page for the reader’s enjoyment and reflection.  Yet it does not appear that the author spent much time reflecting on these parables, given that there is a fair amount of repetition to the point that it appears the author is trying to be a bit heavy-handed in terms of his approach, and more than a little bit hypocritical.  It appears as if the author knows how to collect proverbs and he definitely has some axes to grind and some insight he wishes to provide, but yet somehow does not know how to provide that insight to himself first before seeking to instruct others.

The contents of this book are rather ordinary and the organization scheme is certainly more than a little bit haphazard.  Each page consists of three short sayings no more than paragraph length and often only single sentence length, labeled as proverbs, promises, or principles, some of them taken from scripture, some of them taken from notable or famous people form the past (this book was published first in 1986, but it could have just as easily been published in 1886 given its fondness for Old Richard’s Almanac-style cliches), and many of the sayings formally anonymous.  There are no section headings or chapter headings to divide the proverbs into theme, and though there are occasions where several proverbs on the same topic (silence, humility, psychiatry) are placed together, there are other occasions where the author has a few proverbs on the same subject and then leaves the subject and returns later with more proverbs, as if the point had not been made sufficiently clear the first time.  This book, in other words, is nowhere near as coherent or cohesive as the wisdom literature of the Bible, and if one thinks that books like James or Proverbs [1] are a bit scattered, this is far more so.

Ultimately, this book fails to succeed, even if some of its statements are clever and some of them are entertaining and some of them are funny and entertaining, largely because such a wide gulf exists between the author/compiler as he is and the wisdom he spouts.  Throughout the book the author urges humility on the reader, but he shows little of it when passing on proverbs that look down on other people, including perhaps most notably psychiatrists.  Likewise, the author praises silence as a way that people look wise, wisdom repeated from the Bible, and here repeated far more often than it is found there, but the very fact that the author is writing a book and presenting it as insightful suggests that the author does not believe it is necessary for himself to be humble or silent.  That wisdom which we wish to recommend to others can be best demonstrated not through our words but through our example, and the gulf between the words and the example of the author is too wide for this book to be enjoyable.  It reads as a group of repetitive proverbs collected by someone who was lazy and looking for a cash grab and thought himself more funny and more clever and insightful than he really is, and that is not the sort of book that is enjoyable to read.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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