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Wise men, and Garth Brooks

March 24, 2008|Joe Queenan | Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

'Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go," was the daily thought printed at the bottom of December in the 2007-2008 academic monthly calendar I bought at my son's college. The apercu, written by T.S. Eliot, was appropriate for a collegiate calendar, not only because it was perspicacious but because its author was an academic himself. I was tickled that Eliot was captured in a kleptomaniac frame of mind, as his axiom was a direct lift from Oliver Cromwell's observation, "No man goes further than he who knows not where he is going."

It reassured me to find the most famous poet of the 20th century represented so well here, as it did when I found similarly pithy remarks by Abraham Lincoln ("Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought"), Gandhi ("You must be the change you wish to see in the world") and George S. Patton ("Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom"). These were titans of one sort or another, and all were offering the kind of advice that students could conceivably find useful, if not today, perhaps tomorrow.

Paging through the calendar, I found astute observations by novelist John Gardner ("Life is the art of drawing without an eraser") and Ralph Waldo Emerson ("We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit"), while Pablo Picasso, enigmatic to the last, logged in with the solipsistic but illuminating disclosure: "I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them."

Things rippled along at a nice, inspirational pace with "You don't have to be tall to see the moon," a sweet African proverb, and "There are two lasting gifts you can give your child. One is roots, the other wings." The author of this observation was listed as "Anonymous," and, as was so often the case with the thoughts of those identified only as "Anonymous," it was very sagacious indeed.

Then things took a jarring turn. Opening the page for February, I was greeted by the words "Life is not tried, it is merely survived, if you're standing outside the fire." This observation, fusing the hackneyed with the corny in a vapid stew of flatulence and pretentiousness, had issued from the pen of Garth Brooks. Yes, that Garth Brooks. This floored me.

Here I was, paying $40,000 a year to send my son to a university to study the classics, to devour the works of Homer, Virgil, Suetonius, Tacitus, Ovid, Herodotus and, yes, even Hesiod, only to find that it was selling academic calendars that contained the wit and wisdom of Garth Brooks.

Admittedly, the entry by Margaret Lindsey ("This very moment is a seed from which the flowers of tomorrow's happiness grow") posed no real threat to Plato or Rene Descartes, and both Cathy Guisewite ("All mothers have intuition. The great ones have radar") and Faith Baldwin ("Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations") seemed content to purvey a generic, post-Erma Bombeckian cracker-barrel wisdom.

But however pretentious Lindsey might be, and however much Guisewite and Baldwin might be accused of homespun coyness, at least their remarks were in some way incisive. Brooks' bromide, by contrast, was the kind of hooey that passed for wisdom in the cretinous vortex of contemporary country-and-western music. So how did a dopey drugstore cowboy famous for the song "Friends in Low Places" work his way up to the Mt. Olympus occupied by Gandhi, Picasso and Lincoln? How had he slipped past the solons and eminences grises who are supposed to monitor these things at our finest academic institutions?

And then it came to me. With the exception of Brooks, all the remarks issuing from male lips or pens or styluses were clever, instructive, wise. By contrast, the relatively obscure women represented here expressed ideas that were closer to Hallmark greeting-card sentiments. Why? Why weren't Jane Austen or Golda Meir or Madame Curie or Charlotte Bronte included? Didn't Katharine Hepburn or Queen Christina or Bessie Smith ever say anything witty or clever?

This is how Brooks' jarring presence here finally explained itself. Realizing too late, just before they went to the printers, that they had inadvertently assembled a thoroughly misogynist calendar that included top-shelf material from famous men, but second-rate material from less-than-famous women, Payne Publishers had to scramble.

"Quick, can you think of a first-class male idiot we can get in here?" they must have shrieked. "Surely, Dan Quayle or Caligula or Lou Dobbs must have said something we can use here."

Then the name Garth Brooks was mentioned, and the problem was solved. Though how Brooks beat out Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil is beyond me. And one more thing: The entry for August attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson is from Aristotle.

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