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In quest of the quotable quote

"I couldn't livem without my Bartlett's," says Emily Morison Beck, fumbling through a spanking-new copy. "I have to have an upstairs Bartlett's and a downstairs Bartlett's."

And one by the telephone. And one next to the couch. And one on the small end table. And one in the bookcase. And probably several more in unseen corners of her house.

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Emily Morison Beck is the editor of the 15th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, published recently by Little, Brown in the book's 125th year. The 14th edition, published in 1968, was alose edited by Mrs. Beck.

She flips through the pages to the section on Henry James, leaning forward in her big chair in her book-littered living room. Her house is comfortable, tucked a half-mile back in the suburban woods between a busy highway and a golf course. Many of the books scattered about were written by her father, the historian Samual Eliot Morison.

She doesn't really need to consult Bartlett's; she quotes from memory, rolling her eyes heavenward and shaking her head just slightly:

"'We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.'"

"That," she says, closing Bartlett's emphatically, "is my motto."

Indeed it is. Her passion for quotations has ruled her life since 1952, when she joined the staff preparing the centennial edition of Bartlett's (1955).She has worked steadily for the past two years on this latest edition, thumping away at her typewriter all morning, reading and researching all afternoon, and somehow finding time to compare notes with her chief assistant, Mary Rackliffe, and a staff of 10 and consult with 44 experts (including two of her children) in diverse fields.

What began in 1855 as a modest volume of 258 pages of thoughts from 169 sources has grown to the current tome of 1,598 pages (including an exhaustive, very necessary, surprisingly interesting index of 601 pages compiled by Mary Rackliffe) of 22,500 quotations from 2,400 sources. John Bartlett published that first edition of 1,000 copies himself, an outgrowth of his work as a bookstore keeper in Cambridge, Mass., who was constantly asked where some nice thought or another came from

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There are other collections of quotations, to be sure, but Bartlett's is Bartlett's.m It has become an indispensable tool for scholars, writers, lovers of literature, speechmakers, speechifiers, and late-night readers.

And indispensable to Mrs. Beck. It's a ready outlet for the arcana she collects as she pursues her interests in the classics, history, literature, theater, gardening, and traveling. One suspects that if she didn't have Bartlett's to tuck all this information into, Mrs. Beck's living room might overflow with little cards full of scribblings.

Although those little cards do seem to exist: When she first ran across those lines from Henry James, she jotted them down on a card and tucked it away. She wanted very much to include it in the 15th edition, but didn't know its source. Stymied, she reportedly even contemplated skimming the complete works of James to locate it.

But those plans were mercifully laid aside. One day, while sitting under the dryer at the hair dresser's, she read a magazine article about Truman Capote, who quoted those very lines and cted "The Middle Years" as their source.

"I rushed to the library," she recalls (after her hair had dried, one assumes), "and got out 'The Middle Years,' which is an autobiography, and read the whole thing and didn't find the quote. I thought, 'Ah, Truman, you've let me down.'"

Then she noticed a little editor's note at the very end which said that James took the title for his autobiography from his short story of the same name.

"So back to the stacks. I got out a collection of stories and read the whole thing, and on the next to the last page was the quotation."

Efforts amply rewarded: The quotation is correctly cited in the latest Bartlett's.

Mrs. Beck seems quite comfortable with this seemingly haphazard approach to quote-hunting. She relies, of course, on standard reference sources and the eagle-eyed aid of librarians, but she says the biggest help in her hunt is "serendipity."

When she was faced with finding the source of "The sleep of reason produces monsters," which someone thought "might be Goya," Mrs. Beck had a hunch it was the little of one of his etchings of "Los Caprichos." She was close: The sentence is written into one of the etchings.

Mrs. Beck is modest about her knack for unearthing the sources of quotations. She claims she got into the quotation business almost by chance. She heard about the centennial edition from a friend, and thought it sounded "fascinating." the people at Little, Brown handed her a copy of the current edition and told her to get to work.

when she started on the 15th revision two years ago, she and Mary Rackliffe each sat down with a soon-to-be battered 14th edition, and started pruning. Her copy is latticed with blue marks through passages she or Miss Rackliffe no longer considered Bartlett-worthy, for one reason or another.

Recalling John Bartlett's intention to record quotations that are familiar or noteworthy, they strove to make this edition reflect the age that created it, adding Neil Armstrong's historic first words on landing on themoon, poetic utterings by Muhammad ali, graffiti ("Today is the first day of the rest of yourlife"), quotations from Jimmy Carter and John Ehrlichman ("It'll play in Peoria"), and comments on ecology through the centuries. The number of quotations from feminists and women is greatly enlarged. They double- checked the offerings from the 44 experts, and double- checked each other.

Bartlett's is arranged chronologically by author, and each author's citations are also chronologically arranged. Thus, Mrs. Beck points out, one can trace the evolution of thought over the centuries and the evolution of a particular person's thought through a lifetime -- a one-volume history of the human race. Consider, for example, these two consecutive entries from Gen. Douglas MacArthur:

"I shall return." (On leaving Corregidor for Australia, march 1942.

"I have returned." (Upon landing on Leyte, October 1944.)

In her preface to the 15th edition, she calls Bartlett "literary archaeology, in which familiar and noteworthy quotations reveal -- as do ancient artifacts, temples and dwellings, frescoes and cave paintings -- the nature of the age and the people who created them." Christopher Morley, who edited the 11th and 12th editions, called it "a diary of the race."

That huge index, which was compiled by Mary Rackliffe, is also illuminating. It is arranged according to key word, allowing readers to peruse all the quotations on, say, sleep (186 of them), late into the night.

While refusing to even estimate the number of books she read in preparing this edition, Mrs. Beck recounts, with delight how one subject leads to another. Reading some works of Margaret Mead, for example, led her to other works on anthropology, which led her to Franz Boas, who deeply influenced American anthropology with his studies of native American people. She also confesses to sometimes reading a work only far enough to find the quotation she was seeking, although, she laughs, it "invariably comes at the end."

For all this digging Mrs. Beck and her staff deserve the honor implicit in a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it."

There's even a quotation aboutm Bartlett's in Bartlett's. Sir Winston Churchill advises the uneducated to pursue books of quotations. "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more."

Not bad advice.

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