I love quotes. I love books. So it makes sense that I would love books full of quotes. I have many of them on my shelves: quotes about dogs, friendship, teaching, writing, leadership and quotes by specific people like poets and statesmen. When I was a kid, my mom had a book of quotations that I would peruse for hours, enjoying the wonder of what I found. I would sprinkle quotes into letters and into essays at school. In 6th grade I won an American Legion Essay Contest about what it means to be an American—and, if memory serves, I used a quote by JFK. I’m sure I started collecting my first books of quotes back then too.
Back in 1980—when I was taking my first job after graduate school away from home so away from my mom’s book of quotes—I bought myself Familiar Quotations. It was a little bit of home I could take with me. The book was the 15th and 125th year anniversary edition of the book of quotes first published by John Bartlett back in 1855. I can download this book for free now and easily conduct a search by topic or author, maybe even ask for random quotes to be displayed. But there is something more personal about curling up with the book and diving in.
Today, as I pulled my old well worn tome off the shelf, I randomly opened the book to p. 614. There in close juxtaposition I found, “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” by Lewis Carroll and “There is nothing harder than the softness of indifference” by Juan Montalvo. I have loved Lewis Carroll for years, and the quote brought a smile to my day. But I do not think I would have stumbled onto Montalvo online—and I had not heard of him before. His words made me think about the hurt that can come from staying quiet too long or from moving on even if something needs to be resolved or defended. His quote reminded me that we are all as fragile as Blanche DuBois, who “can’t stand a naked lightbulb, anymore than. . . a rude comment or a vulgar action.” Or just being ignored or overlooked.
But I also stumbled upon a delicious little book full of wit, sarcasm and some downright mean commentary. The book’s title was almost bigger than the book itself: The Little Book of Venom: A Collection of Historical Insults compiled by Jennifer Higgie. This collection of quotes is only 167 pages long, but it contains a wide world of insight and criticism. There are 12 chapters arranged around various categories like art, music, love, history and politics. The largest chapter takes up 36% of the pages and is “On Writing.” The book’s index lets the reader search for quotes by specific people and about specific authors and subjects. To do justice to this little treasure, I simply have to share some of the quotes:
“Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910), on Richard Wagner
“Far too noisy, my dear Mozart, far too many notes. . . “
Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)
“The American has no language. He has dialect, slang, provincialism, accent, and so forth.”
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
“England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”
Attributed to George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
“He grew up from manhood to boyhood.”
R. A. Knox (1888-1957), on G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
“His imagination resembles the wings of an ostrich.”
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), British historian, on John Dryden (1631-
1700), English poet
“A large shaggy dog just unchained scouring the beaches of the world and baying at
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), on Walt Whitman (1819-91)
“The way George Bernard Shaw believes in himself is very refreshing in these
atheistic days when so many people believe in no God at all.”
Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), British dramatist and novelist, on George Bernard
“He has never been known to use a word that might send a man to a dictionary.”
William Faulkner (1897-1962), on Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think emotions come from big words?”
Ernest Hemingway, on William Faulkner
“The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but
because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), in his History of England
“The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs.”
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sevigne (1626-96)
“The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.”
Honore de Balsac (1799-1850)
“He was meddling too much in my private life.”
Tennessee Williams (1911-83), on why he had stopped visiting his psychoanalyst
But as fun as it was to spend time enjoying these quotes, finding the book was actually rather bittersweet. You see, this book was a gift about seven years ago from a good friend. We were really quite alike, so she ended her inscription with “If you laugh at these too. . . ?” and I definitely did/do. We have not been able to laugh together over a book or piece of chocolate or anything in over a year now. It’s complicated. I guess I am just being wistful, remembering that laughter is sweeter if shared with a friend. There’s got to be a quote about that somewhere.
What’s your favorite quote?