[Book It] James Geary @ Harvard Book Store


For James Geary, metaphor is not just another literary device, a word scribbled on a 7th grade note card before receding into memory. In his new book, I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See The World, the bestselling author exposes how metaphors impact almost every aspect of our lives, from advertising to economics to physics, illuminating how such a simple rhetorical trick effects decision making at its core. Delving into the history of metaphor, Geary explores their etymology and linguistics, exposing truths that have been in front of our faces and pouring out of our mouths without any thought given to them  - do you know what the term ‘scared shitless' actually means?

Saturated with endless examples, I Is An Other leaves you self-consciously listening to the way you speak since, according to Geary, each of us utters a metaphor ever ten to 25 words. Sound like a lot? Maybe too much? It does until Geary explains, in one of the most compelling chapters in the book, how those with autism spectrum disorders interact and comprehend the world differently, largely because they are unable to understand metaphorical thinking.

Although the witty and concise writing can turn kitsch at times, playing for chuckles with lines such as "metaphor keeps the mind shaking, rattling and rolling long after Elvis has left the building," and explaining metaphors through other, over-simplified  metaphors, it provides an original and smart understanding of the effects of figurative language. Geary's newest leaves you with one major line: "image trumps information."

Geary, who is currently living in Cambridge for the year while completing a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism, took some time to talk to me about his various books and interest in aphorisms, as well as his upcoming performance at the Harvard Book Store tomorrow evening.

I'm curious about your performance tomorrow. I've heard it's much more than a reading. What exactly is it going to entail?

It's not a reading at all. There's not a single moment during the performance where I read anything. It's much more of a talk/performance/stand-up comedy routine.

The first part of it is a visual presentation that describes how metaphor works in the brain and also demonstrating to people these psychological tests or psychological exercises that are really fun and enlightening, and we do them together-basically an exploration of metaphor and how it works.

Then there's a juggling segue in which I juggle and talk about aphorisms, and I relate aphorisms to metaphor and juggling. It's very interactive.

What made you interested in intensively studying metaphors?

I discovered aphorisms in the "Quotable Quotes" section of the Reader's Digest when I was eight, aphorisms being these short, witty, philosophical sayings, like Mark Twain's "I never let school interfere with my education." And I wrote a couple books about aphorisms. I've been more or less obsessed with them since I was eight. And in researching those books on aphorisms, the deeper I got into the subject, I kept thinking: what makes aphorisms special? Why do I like them so much? How do they work? And I realized at some point, when I was compiling the encyclopedia of aphorists, that aphorisms work almost completely via metaphor.

There's a great aphorism by a Polish author, Stanislaw Lec, that goes, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." And if you think about that saying literally, it's nonsense. But if you think about it metaphorically, it's got all kind of funny and interesting implications for how people behave in groups, and the dangers of groupthink, and how people feel comfortable doing something in a group that they wouldn't feel comfortable doing alone.

I realized that metaphor is actually present not just in literature, but everywhere in daily life: psychology, economics, science. Any time we try and express anything that involves something abstract or emotions or ideas, we use metaphor.

I thought one of the most interesting parts of the book was the chapter on Asperger's.

That was one of the most surprising, and in a way shocking, things I discovered: how difficult it is for people with Asperger's to get by in daily life. They don't understand all these very simple, basic metaphors that you and I, and everybody without autism, just takes for granted. It really brought home the point that our emotional lives, our relationships and how we relate to one another would be so impoverished without metaphor.

I was interested in the fact that at the end, you have 30 pages of notes and a 30 page bibliography. How did you go about researching such a huge topic?

I'm very methodical when I'm doing research for my books. I live in London normally, when I'm not doing a fellowship at Harvard, and the metaphor book - well, for all my books - I spend a lot of time in the British Library. For the metaphor book, I put in a key word for metaphor and looked at every book that came up. And that turned out to be a hell of a lot, unfortunately for me.

I had this intuitive sense that metaphor was very, very important in daily life, but I didn't realize how important until I got into doing the research. And there's lots of literary studies on metaphor, and on [how] this poet or that [uses metaphor], or metaphors in the 17th century. But I wasn't really pursuing a literary criticism, [although] there's lots of literature in [the book], lots of poetry and poets: Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Robert Frost. The book is infused with a literary sensibility, but it's not about literature.

The 30 pages of notes and the 30 pages of bibliography came from [that], not going through every book that came up under the keyword at the British Library - I would still be there reading if I had.

Between aphorisms and metaphors, you seem to enjoy tackling huge topics - even endless topics. What draws you to research the more abstract?

It makes them very difficult to research, but that's a fascinating intellectual challenge to be able to take on huge, sweeping, unwieldy topics. How do you get your head around those things? Well there's a metaphor! "Get your head around them."

My background, what I studied in college and what I'm passionate about, is literature and language. . . Literature is not just something in books, it's something that we actually live and breathe in a way that I think is not really widely recognized, and is very important. For the aphorisms books, for example, I talk about how people use aphorisms everyday, how we're constantly using them. We see them on billboards and in pop songs that we're constantly sharing. Aphorisms are oral literature that is still practiced everywhere around the world, and for me, that's a very clear example about how literature informs and infuses daily life.

Metaphors are something people think of as a literary device, but [they're] actually a fundamental principle of the way we think. Whether we read literature or not, whether we love poetry or hate it, it doesn't matter. We are all using metaphor all the time, and we are all creating metaphors all the time. However unwieldy the topic is, it's a perfect way to celebrate and demonstrate the intersection of daily life and literature, or the arts and the world, or however you want to phrase it. And not just literature and the arts, but also science and economics, and how these are all intertwined in a subject like metaphor.

JAMES GEARY PRESENTS I IS AN OTHER | Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, Cambridge | February 23 @ 7pm | Free | or 617.661.1515


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