Collection of premier proverb scholar opens at UVM

“A room without books is like a body without soul,” as the proverb goes.

By Lisa Rathke / Associated Press

BURLINGTON, Vt. — From “Strike while the iron is hot” to “Been there, done that,” proverbs have been developed around the world for centuries, spread by word of mouth, writings, and nowadays social media.

University of Vermont Professor Wolfgang Mieder, thought to be the world’s premier paroemiologist, has been studying the concise statements for 50 years, amassing thousands of books and writings that are now housed in a new unique library named after him at the school.

“In my wildest dreams I never thought this would happen,” said Mieder, 75, a university distinguished professor of German and folklore, who’s thankful to find a home for his unique collection.

The extensive library of about 9,000 volumes ranges from colleges of proverb including German, Chinese, Turkish and Hungarian to thousands of books and dissertations on what proverbs are, their origins and function. It includes, of course, Mieder’s own writings.

He is “one of the greatest proverb scholars of all times and the greatest of our generation,” said Dan Ben-Amos, a professor of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email.

The energetic 75-year-old has written 246 books and 569 articles on proverbs, edited a scholarly annual called “Proverbium” and given 405 talks on his favorite topic in 21 countries, according to UVM.

“Bolstered by his incredible library, his studies are about how movers and shakers of society make a difference, and shape movements, with their speech,” said Simon Bronner, a distinguished professor emeritus of American studies and folklore at Pennsylvania State University, who is now a dean and professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Mieder’s working definition of a proverb is: a concise statement of an apparent truth which has currency. They can be religious or secular. Among his favorites: “Different strokes for different folks,” which people may remember from a television show or song.

“I like that proverb because for once it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t tell you what to do,” he said. “It tells you to be reasonable, to realize that people have different priorities, different thoughts, different ideas.”

He also particularly likes one that Martin Luther King Jr. used a lot, “Making a way out of no way.”

Mieder said his wife had become concerned about what would happen to the books if something happened to him. The couple had already added onto their home a few times to accommodate a good portion of his collection.

Over the years he’s had scholars visit from around the globe and taken them to his home to see the collection.

Mieder talked with UVM’s library officials but the school had no room for the books. That was until recently.

In 2018, the school had just renovated a building that it considers to be its most architecturally important — the Billings Library — which over the years was no longer serving as a library. But a large lounge that returned to its original function as a reading and study room — with long tables — was lacking something on the rich wood-grained walls.

“A room without books is like a body without soul,” as the proverb goes.

Mieder’s collection soon found a home. The library opened in May.

Other professors haven’t been so lucky, said Mieder, who said he knows of retirees who have had to give away their books or give them to secondhand book dealers, dispersing their collections.

“I think it speaks very, very highly of UVM that all of this happened,” he said. “And seemingly everybody is happy about it. I certainly am. And I’m extremely thankful.”

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