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How to be a winning quoter

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''People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.'' This insouciant thought, we hasten to admit, was lifted from our Quotations Calendar pad for 1983. We happen to have a sweet tooth for aphorisms, and the sugar plum from Logan Pearsall Smith made our day - January 3, as we recall.

We wouldn't be compelled to cite humbly our rather unscholarly source if we knew Timothy Dickinson. Mr. Dickinson happens to be in the business of supplying apt quotations for others, and he certainly would have produced this beauty on request - it so perfectly describes him.

For being a bookworm after Logan Pearsall Smith's dusty ideal, Mr. Dickinson has found himself suddenly becoming a minor celebrity, following all those years of obscurity under the old reading lamp. He has been profiled by the Wall Street Journal and interviewed on network television, looking like anmbassador in exile in his gray waistcoat and striped trousers, sporting what can only be described as a cravat.

It is pleasant to imagine Mr. Dickinson wearing this uniform as he reads a history of mathematics, a biography of Samuel Johnson, Tennyson's poems, a chronicle on canals - almost anything to build up his reserves when called upon for a learned or exotic reference. He is said to keep 10 to 15 bookmarks moving, 60 to 70 hours a week.

Among his modestly legendary exploits, Mr. Dickinson - who began by reading modern history at Oxford - has supplied the columnist George Will with a quotation from Pope Urban IV and Tom Wolfe with a bibliography on courage for his book about the astronauts, ''The Right Stuff.'' When Lewis Lapham was editor of Harper's, he kept himself well-stocked by Mr. Dickinson so that he could, with light learning, make such weighty observations as this: ''When Pythagoras established the theorem of the square upon the hypotenuse, he sacrificed 1,000 oxen to Apollo. Since then, whenever anyone has had a new idea, oxen everywhere have trembled.''


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