Alum Explores Literary History and Garners Acclaim with 2019 Book
January 6, 2020 | By Les Poling
What is an aphorism?
Most of us encounter one every day. Google “famous aphorisms,” and dozens of familiar phrases light up the screen—platitudes like “a barking dog never bites” and “actions speak louder than words.”
But for St. John’s alum Andrew Hui (A02), the aphorism is more than that: it’s a synthesis of literature and philosophy that defines human history. His 2019 book, A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter, is a nearly-200-page examination of the aphorism as a universal literary form that transcends cultures, intellectual traditions, and civilizations. Shortly after Princeton University Press published A Theory of the Aphorism, it was spotlighted in The New Yorker, where writer Adam Gopnik admiringly described Hui’s “oddly and interestingly different” approach to a timeless, ever-present form.
So how did Hui end up writing an entire book about the short saying?
It started with the passion that eventually led him to St. John’s: reading. Growing up in a small suburb of Dallas, Texas, Hui recalls, “I loved books. I loved culture. What got me hooked into reading was visiting, almost daily, our neighborhood library.” He spent his allowance money on books in the back of Salvation Army and Goodwill stores, and when a Barnes & Noble opened in a neighboring town, he was captivated. “In the café, they [had] this mural of all these great authors, like Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka,” Hui says. “I looked at that and said ‘oh, I want to read these authors.’ St. John’s gave me an opportunity to do that.”
Hui started at the St. John’s Santa Fe campus, transferring to Annapolis in sophomore year. The Program not only gave him the chance to read the canonical works he’d dreamed of in Texas; it offered a “lightning bolt moment” that helped him realize his own ambitions. “In my sophomore Greek tutorial, I had a really awesome tutor,” Hui says. “I knew I had written a poor paper, and I went to ask for recommendations: ‘How can I write a better essay? How can I be a better writer?’” Hui’s tutor suggested Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis—a foundational work of European comparative literature—“and that just blew my mind away,” he recalls. “I didn’t know that you could use literary criticism as a way to think about culture, about civilization, about the development of history. I didn’t know that literary criticism had the power to do that.”
His time at St. John’s led to Princeton and a PhD in comparative literature, a wide-ranging discipline perfect for a St. John’s grad. “The education at St. John’s gave me the breadth and depth of the classical tradition [and] a firm grounding in humanities,” Hui says. “I wasn’t satisfied with focusing on just one national literary tradition.” After three postdoc years at Stanford, Hui has now been a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore for the last seven years, teaching literature, writing his first book—The Poetics of Ruin in Renaissance Literature—and, of course, examining the aphorism.
Which leads back to A Theory of the Aphorism. In researching and writing the book, Hui dove into ideas he’d been exploring his entire academic life—he first started noticing the pervasiveness of the aphorism when studying Greek, Latin, and French at St. John’s—and while his first book took nearly ten years to write, this one took approximately ten months. “As a scholar, you compile this data bank, you compile this archive of things that you read, and slowly I started gathering my own fragments together,” Hui explains. “It just happened that, before my book, there was no general theory of the aphorism…there [wasn’t] really a book to think about the aphorism as a philosophical form.”
It’s easy to see the similarities between the Program and the encompassing investigation of Hui’s book. Indeed, “much of the book is a sort of homage to my education, to St. John’s,” Hui says, “because so many authors that are in the book I encountered when I was an undergraduate.” But the book builds on the St. John’s foundation to expand even further, exploring the sayings of Confucius, the concept of the aphorism in the social media age. In A Theory of the Aphorism, no stone is left unturned—because, Hui argues, the short saying spans all of human thought, from the Buddha to Pascal. “At the core of the aphorism is that it seeks to contain the whole,” he says. “It’s a microcosm. It’s one thing that contains a plurality of worlds.”
A Theory of the Aphorism has certainly found an eager audience, garnering stellar reviews in The New Yorker, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and World Literature Today. And the intellectual curiosity ignited at St. John’s shows no sign of stopping: Hui is currently at work on another book, “a playful Borgesian encyclopedia entitled A Fragmented Dictionary of the Universal Book.” Like any Johnnie, he knows that the study of Great Books is an enlightening and continually relevant pursuit.
“We’re not going to exhaust Homer and Shakespeare and Dante,” Hui declares. “These works are infinitely greater than any of us. So what we’re doing is adding to the conversation—and we’re continuing it. Because time changes and history changes, we all necessarily have something original and new to say.”