On blurbs and encomia

Had my encomium been turned into a blurb?

On Sunday, I’d received a nice note in my inbox to the effect that the first issue of the Journal of Modern Wisdom had been selling at a good clip at the local book shops in Cambridge. A few weeks prior, I’d sent a favorable review of JMW to Ben Irvine, Editor and man of parts, and a couple weeks after that Ben and I had had a fine chat over Skype.

In the email and on the website, I saw that Ben had taken excerpts from the review:

I took immense pleasure [I wrote in my review] in reading the Journal of Modern Wisdom from start to finish. The artwork alone makes it well worth the purchase. I love how Thai Beltrame’s illustrations are threaded throughout the journal almost as if they were part of a flip book. The reader feels such joy upon encountering a door, a moon, a galaxy, a simple joy that a child experiences in the presence of the smallest thing… In my view, [I go on] the best kind of philosophy inhabits the middle realm between the lower bound of self-help and the upper bound of analytic philosophy… The best essays in the Journal of Modern Wisdom manage to inhabit this realm, and that’s a good thing, a very good thing indeed.

All of which led me to ask whether there is a difference between a blurb and an encomium and to consider whether that mattered in the end. I’m not sure there is a difference, apart from historical context and our vexed attitude toward the marketplace, but I am sure that it matters.


As Silva Rhetoricae tells us, an encomium is “praise for a person or thing for being virtuous.” The pupil who praises the right person is learning how to sew her eloquent words into worthwhile things (the beautiful supervenes on the good). She is exercising good perception: how to look at the right things in the right way. Moreover, she is cultivating just generosity. The object of her attention “calls” her to, or “entreats” her to, give the thing its due. Writing an encomium is thus a meditation on self and other, one exercise among others in the practice of self-transformation. In praise, she comes to love.

But can a blurb be a praisesong, or must it be something else entirely? The historical record is mixed. In 1914, Gelett Burgess, in his Burgess Unabridged, defines a blurb as a

flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.‥ On the ‘jacket’ of the ‘latest’ fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the ‘sensation of the year’.

From Burgess’s remarks, it can be inferred that a blurb is precisely that figure of speech–the hyperbole–that cannot give something its due. A blurb is unjust in that it sings the praises of that which is not worthy of such praise. It is flattery, period, and flattery involves praising the wrong thing full stop or praising the right thing for the wrong reason or praising the right thing but overly much. Encoded in the blurb are all  kinds of vice–ignorance, dishonesty, deceit, garrulity, injustice, hot air–vices trotted out for the sake of pushing product.

Burgess’s was not the final word on the matter, however. The Times Literary Supplement, in 1926, says more soberly that a blurb is “The paragraph briefly setting forth the merits of the book.”  TLS, therefore, does not weigh in on whether the blurb is accurate in its assessment of the work’s merits. Whereas Burgess had assumed that the interests of the market trump the evaluation of merit, TLS remained agnostic.

It would not be an overstatement to say that our ambivalence surrounding the concept of the blurb is also a sign of our deeper and more longstanding ambivalence about the messy relationship among the virtues, craftsmanship, and the marketplace. For what reasons do I praise a work? Does it matter that the praise is short or long? Does it make any difference whether the praise has been copied, pasted, and inserted in a new context (the French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote of “iterability” in connection with hermeneutics)? How about who uttered the statements? Is ours the kind of social world where fine words can’t be trusted? Where we must always be on our guard? And what am I doing when I set up a link to the Journal of Modern Wisdom? Finally, though this is hardly “finally,” what form of education would be necessary to put the good (the virtues), the beautiful (eloquence), and the useful (the market) back on the same footing?

The church bells tolling 9 o’clock remind me that my blogging for the day is now at an end.

2 thoughts on “On blurbs and encomia

  1. “It’s simple really.” Well, there’s simple and then there’s simple, isn’t there? As we know, the question is getting thinking into good practices and good institutions.

    “How and where and when do we begin?” All fuzzy. My answer so far is to help build small institutions and see how well they work.

  2. Try again. Clumsiness on my part. The question, your question, is not fuzzy; it’s perfectly clear. The ANSWER, at this historical stage, is fuzzy.

    Take building a small-scale institution. We’ve got some idea of what kinds of things might work here but we’re not sure, or so it seems to me, about whether they will or how they will or to what extent they will or what impact they’ll have. I’d say that things are right now up for grabs. And that’s what I mean by fuzzy.

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