Read an Excerpt
-by Dave Barry
I have to admit that, when I was a youngster in grade school, I did not care for Benjamin Franklin. Teachers were always shoving him down my throat-him and his wise adages, such as "A penny saved is a penny earned." I had no idea what that meant.
As an adult, I see the point Franklin was making with the penny adage, but I have trouble applying it to life in the 2000s. A more accurate adage for today would be: "A penny saved is a penny that winds up in an overflowing jar of pennies that you don't want to throw away, because theoretically they are money, but you can't really use them as money unless you put them into coin wrappers and take them to the bank, and who has coin wrappers anyway, let alone time to be sitting around wrapping coins, and why the hell does the government even make pennies, anyway?"
Along the same lines: I firmly believe that early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man miss pretty much everything good on TV.
So if you want the brutal truth, I did not expect to get much useful information out of Poor Richard's Almanack. I wondered, what could Benjamin Franklin-a guy who has been, no offense, dead for more than two hundred years-possibly have to say that would be relevant to a resident of today's dot-com world?
Plenty, as it turns out. Now, I'm not saying that every adage in the Almanack rings with timeless wisdom. There are some I don't get at all. Take, for example, this one, from the 1749 Almanack.
If your head is wax, don't walk in the Sun.
This sounds vaguely wise, but I can't figure out what it means-unless it means that you should not walk around in the sun if your head is literally made out of wax, in which case my reaction is, duh. I suspect that this might be a case where Franklin couldn't come up with a legitimate adage, so he just made up something that had a kind of adage-y feel to it, like:
Celery makes a poor horse whip.
A dog that eats cheese never needs a canoe.
But I have to say, much of what I read in the Almanack had me nodding in agreement and wishing that modern people (including me) followed its precepts. Poor Richard advocates diligence, self-reliance, frugality, and honesty; he disdains laziness, extravagance, pretense, and immodesty. It goes without saying that he hates lawyers. This is the ultimate self-help book, containing more practical advice on getting successfully though life than you'll hear in a thousand years of talk-show psychobabble. You want a diet plan? Listen to Poor Richard:
To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.
You want good relationships?
Love and be loved.
You want to know exactly what's wrong with televangelists?
To be proud of Virtue, is to poison yourself with the Antidote.
You want to know how to be satisfied with your lot in a world where twenty-two-year-olds become internet billionaires?
To be content, look backward on those who possess less than yourself, not forward on those who possess more. If this does not make you content, you don't deserve to be happy.
Poor Richard's Almanack isn't only wise: It's funny. In fact, the first edition of the Almanack, for 1733, began with a fine gag. In the preface, "Poor Richard" declared, with much mock solemnity and sorrow, that, according to his calculations, a competing almanack publisher, Titan Leeds, would die on October 17 of that year. This forced Leeds, the following year, to preface his Almanack with a detailed and very serious denial that he was dead. Almanack wars!
My favorite example of Franklin's humor appears in the 1757 Almanack, where he explains, in considerable detail, how to construct a "Striking Sundial." This is a sundial that tells the time by using the rays of the sun, magnified by lenses, to set off cannons. Yes! So, for example, if you heard ten cannons go off, you'd know it was ten o'clock (either that or a war had started). With this device, states the Almanack, "not only a Man's own Family, but all his Neighbors for ten Miles round, may know what o'clock it is, when the Sun shines."
Of course Franklin was kidding. He was using the Striking Sundial to make the point that some things cost far too much for the benefits they provide (can you say "federal government?").
I'm not saying this book is going to have you slapping your thighs all the way through. But I bet it gives you more than a few chuckles. You might even find yourself taking some of Poor Richard's advice and profiting from it. I hope you do, although I feel compelled to tell you, Courteous Reader, that if the profit is in the form of pennies, you might as well just throw them away.