Quote Unquote

A new anthology of quotations bridges the gap between high culture and mass media. Scott McLemee wonders if it's sturdy enough.

November 29, 2006

Keeping a commonplace book -- a notebook for copying out the striking passages you’ve come across while reading -- was once a fairly standard practice, not just among professional scholars but for anyone who (as the expression went) “had humane letters.” Some people still do it, though the very idea of creating your own customized, hand-written anthology does seem almost self-consciously old-fashioned now. Then again, that may be looking at things the wrong way. When John Locke circulated his New Method of a Common-Place Book in the late 17th century, he wasn’t offering Martha Stewart-like tips on how to be genteel. He had come up with a system of streamlined indexing and text-retrieval -- a way to convert the commonplace book into a piece of low-tech software for smart people on the go.

There is a fairly direct line running from Locke’s efficiency-enhancing techniques to The Yale Book of Quotations, a handsome and well-indexed compilation just issued by Yale University Press. That line runs through the work of John Bartlett, the prodigious American bookworm whose recall of passages from literature made him semi-famous in Cambridge, Mass. even before he published a small collection of Familiar Quotations in 1855. He included more and more material from his own commonplace book in later editions, so that the book grew to doorstop-sized. I don’t know whether or not Bartlett had read Locke’s essay. But he did index the book in a manner the philosopher would have found agreeable.

Following his death in 1905, “Bartlett’s” has become almost synonymous with the genre of quotation-collection itself – a degree of modest immortality that might have surprised him. (Chances are, he expected to be remembered for the fact that his friend James Russell Lowell once published a poem about Bartlett’s skill as a fisherman.)

The new Yale collection follows Bartlett’s example, both in its indexing and in sheer heft. It is not just a compilation but a work of scholarship. The editor, Fred R. Shapiro, is an associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at the Yale Law School; and his edition of The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations is well-regarded by both lawyers and reference librarians. In The Yale Book of Quotations, he proves even more diligent than Bartlett was about finding the exact origins and wording of familiar quotations.

The classic line from Voltaire that runs “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” does not appear among the selections from Voltaire, for the simple reason that he never actually said it. (According to an article appearing in the November 1943 issue of Modern Language Notes, it was actually coined by one of Voltaire's biographers, S. G. Tallentre.) Shapiro finds that the principle later known as “Murphy’s Law” was actually formulated by George Orwell in 1941. (“If there is a wrong thing to do,” wrote Orwell, “it will be done, infallibly. One has come to believe in that as if it were a law of nature.”)

In his posthumously published autobiography, Mark Twain attributed the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to Benjamin Disraeli. But the saying has long been credited to Twain himself, in the absence of any evidence that Disraeli actually said it. Thanks to the digitized editions of old newspapers, however, Shapiro finds it attributed to the former British prime minister in 1895, almost 30 years before Twain’s book was published.

It turns out that Clare Boothe Luce’s most famous quip, “No good deed goes unpunished,” first recorded in 1957, was actually attributed to Walter Winchell 15 years earlier. And as Shapiro notes, there is evidence to suggest that it had been a proverb even before that. Likewise, it was  not Liberace who coined the phrase “crying all the way to the bank” but rather, again, Winchell. (Oddly enough, the gossip columnist -- a writer as colorful as he was callous -- does not get his own entry.)

The historical notes in small type -- elaborating on sources and parallels, and sometimes cross-referencing other quotations within the volume -- make this a really useful reference work. It is also a profitable (or at least entertaining) way to procrastinate.

At the same time, it is a book that would have bewildered John Bartlett – and not simply because it places less emphasis on classic literature than commonplace-keepers once did. The editor has drawn on a much wider range of sources than any other volume of quotations I’ve come across, including film, television, popular songs, common sayings, and promotional catchphrases. Many of the choices are smart, or at least understandable. The mass media, after all, serve as the shared culture of our contemporary Global Village, as Marshall McLuhan used to say.

But many of the entries are inexplicable -- and some of them are just junk. What possible value is there to a selection of 140 advertising slogans (“There’s something about an Aqua Velva man”) or 90 television catchphrases (“This is CNN”)? The entry for Pedro Almodavar, the Spanish director, consists entirely of the title of one of his films, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Why bother?

A case might be made for including the “Space, the final frontier...” soliloquy from the opening of Star Trek, as Shapiro does in the entry for Gene Roddenberry. He also cross-references it to a quotation from 1958 by the late James R. Killian, then-president of MIT, who defined space exploration as a matter of “the thrust of curiosity that leads me to try to go where no man has gone before.” So far, so good. But why also include the slightly different wordings used in the openings to The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: The Next Generation?

The fact that quotations from Mae West run to more than one and a half pages is not a problem. They are genuinely witty and memorable. (e.g., “Between two evils, I always pick the one I’ve never tried before.”) But how is it that the juvenile lyrics of Alanis Mrrissette merit nearly as much space as the entry for Homer? (The one from Greece, I mean, not from Springfield.)

It is hard to know what to make of some of these editorial decisions. It’s as if Shapiro had included, on principle, a certain amount of the static and babble that fills the head of anyone tuned into the contemporary culture – “quotations” just slightly more meaningful than the prevailing media noise (and perhaps not even that).

But another sense of culture prevailed in Bartlett’s day -- one that Matthew Arnold summed up as a matter of “getting to know, on all the matters that concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” That doesn’t mean excluding popular culture. The lines here from Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and "The Simpsons" are all worth the space they fill. But the same is not true of “Plop plopp, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is."

All such griping aside, The Yale Book of Quotations is an absorbing reminder that all one’s best observations were originally made by someone else. And it includes a passage from Dorothy Sayer explaining how to benefit from this: “I always have a quotation for everything,” she wrote. “It saves original thinking.”

I had considered suggesting that it might make a good present for Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, etc. According to the publisher’s Web site, the first printing is already sold out. It is available in bookstores, however, and also from some online booksellers. Here’s hoping it goes through many editions -- so that Shapiro will get a chance to recognize that Eminem’s considerable verbal skills do not translate well into cold type.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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