Ben’s wit, wisdom

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‘Franklin has been the subject of a publishing frenzy, and there are a host of good books about the great man.’ Two hundred and seventy-three years ago, in December of 1732, Americans saw the first publication of a book that was to be continually revised and updated until the start of the American Revolution. Ostensibly, it was written by one Richard Saunders, who set about writing it because his wife, Bridget, nagged at the poor man to make something of his life instead wasting time stargazing.

Richard and his harpy wife did not exist, of course. They were the fictional creations of one of America’s most interesting men, past or present. Benjamin Franklin, born 300 years ago this month, was a man of many parts: diplomat, inventor, author, publisher, scientist and, of particular importance to all of us here at the library, founder of America’s first circulating library.

Not bad for a man who’d had only two years of formal schooling. Clearly, though, Ben was a man of genius and a voracious reader throughout his life. He began as a printer’s apprentice and, by sheer perseverance and a belief in hard work, rose to become an ambassador to France and a contributor to our Declaration of Independence.


Almanacs with astrological and scientific data date back to 1476, but none attained the popularity of “Poor Richard’s,” which sold nearly 150,000 copies in 1766. Poor Richard wasn’t so poor, but it was Franklin’s individual style and wit more than the printed facts that sold the book. Not only did it offer up calendars and astrological information, it included historical facts such as a list of the kings of England or saints days. Most important of all, it contained Franklin’s practical aphorisms and witticisms that were simply instructions on how to get ahead and succeed in life.

So the Almanac was read, not just for weather predictions, but to find moral precepts wrapped in the wit of our first great humorist.

“Drive thy business, or it will drive thee.”

“In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.”

“I have not failed; I have found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

“A country man between lawyers is like a fish between two cats.”

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain, and most fools do.”

“Some are weather-wise, some are otherwise.”

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to prosper.”

Oh, it can go on and on, a list of wonderfully pithy, practical and sly pronouncements. And in his day, people would preface any of these sayings with “as Richard says ... “

For more information on Franklin, turn to compendiums of “Poor Richard’s Almanac (or Almanak, or Almanack)” or his fascinating, “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Or look into compilations such as “Franklin on Franklin,” edited by Paul M. Zall.

With the 300th anniversary of Ben Franklin’s birth this month, Franklin has lately been the subject of a publishing frenzy, and there are a host of truly good books about the great man. James Srodes draws on some newly discovered material in “Franklin: the Essential Founding Father.” For a breezy but elegant read, there is Stacy Schiff’s “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America” in which she focuses on the eight years Franklin spent in France convincing the French to help us rid ourselves of the British. And for two solid biographies, try Gordon S. Wood’s “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin” or Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.”

And always remember that “Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, and discourse a clear man.” -- Poor Richard’s Almanack

* CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. This week’s column is by Sara Barnicle. All titles may be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at https://www.newport For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, please contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.