Dwight Garner Shares From His Stash of Other Writers’ Words

Make your own Bible. Select and collect all
those words and sentences that in all your
reading have been to you like the blast of a
trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John, and Paul.
— RALPH WALDO EMERSON

For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book. It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.

I began keeping my commonplace book in the 1980s, when I was in high school. In the 1990s, when I was working as the arts editor for an alternative weekly newspaper in Vermont, I typed the whole thing into a long computer file. I’ve moved it from desktops to laptops and now onto my iPhone, too. Into it I’ve poured verbal delicacies, “the blast of a trumpet,” as Emerson put it, and bits of scavenged wisdom from my life as a reader. Yea, for I am an underliner, a destroyer of books, and maybe you are, too.

Commonplace books are not so uncommon. Virginia Woolf kept one. So did Samuel Johnson. W. H. Auden published his, as did the poet J. D. McClatchy. E. M. Forster’s was issued after his death. The novelist David Markson wrote terse and enveloping novels that resembled commonplace books; they were bird’s nests of facts threaded with the author’s own subtle interjections. For fans of the genre, many prize examples have come from lesser-known figures such as Geoffrey Madan and Samuel Rogers, both English, who issued commonplace books that are notably generous and witty and illuminating. These have become cult items. The literary critic Christopher Ricks said about Rogers that, although he may not have been a kind man, “he was very good at hearing what was said.”

In my commonplace book, for handy reference, I keep things in categories: “food,” “conversation,” “social class,” “travel,” “politics,” “cleanliness,” “war,” “money,” “clothing,” etc. I use it as an aide-mémoire, a kind of external hard drive. It helps me ward off what Christopher Hitchens, quoting a friend, called CRAFT (Can’t Remember a F— Thing) syndrome. I use my gleanings in my own writing. Like Montaigne, I quote others only “in order to better express myself.” Montaigne compared quoting well to arranging other people’s flowers. Sometimes, I sense, I quote too often in the reviews I write for The New York Times, swinging on quotations as if from vine to vine. It’s one of the curses of spending a lifetime as a word-eater, and of retaining a reliable memory.

I am no special fan of most books of quotations. “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” “The Yale Book of Quotations” and “The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations,” to name three dependable reference books, are invaluable, for sure, as repositories of literary and verbal history. (Countless other books of quotations aren’t reliable at all, and the less said about quotation sites on the internet the better.) But even the best include a good deal of dead weight. They lean, sometimes necessarily, on canned and overused thought and, grievously, are skewed to the upbeat. So many of the lines they contain seem to vie to be stitched onto throw pillows or ladled, like soup, over the credulous soul. “Almost all poetry is a failure,” Charles Bukowski is said to have contended, “because it sounds like somebody saying, Look, I have written a poem.” The same is true of quotations and aphorisms. So many have a taxidermied air, as if they were self-consciously aimed at posterity.

My book, “Garner’s Quotations,” is an attempt to break with the conventions of commonplace books and volumes of quotations. For one thing, it contains only a small selection of the material I’ve hoarded. For another, in arranging these sentences I’ve gone by feel, not by category. I’ve tried to let the comments speak to one another and perhaps throw off unexpected sparks.

Quotations, by definition, are out of context. I’ve played freely with this notion and have placed some lines quite out of context indeed. In this book there are few life lessons and little uplift, except by accident. I’ve selected lines mostly from books and writers I admire, and it’s my hope that a reading list might present itself over the course of the proceedings. This book is a way of saying thank you to many writers for the pleasure they’ve brought me. Obviously I don’t agree with everything said; retweet does not always, as they say on Twitter, equal endorsement.

A literary critic thinks long and hard before bringing another book into the world. Perhaps, this critic thinks, a thrifty book that points the way to other books might be worthwhile. Writing in the April 1904 issue of The Atlantic, Walt Whitman declared that he was tired of “gloved gentleman words.” He admired “unhemmed latitude, coarseness, directness, live epithets, expletives, words of opprobrium, resistance.” I have tried to put Whitman’s words to use in regard to quotations. There is more blaspheming in this book than there is in most collections of quotations. (Until fairly recently, most did not permit profanity.) It is a truth universally acknowledged among book critics that the most memorable lines in many novels contain the word f—. These cannot be printed in newspapers. I have saved these lines up, and present some of them in this book.

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