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Thought hooks

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I am not sure how my interest in quotations began. In youth I looked for credos. I can remember tacking up over my desk the credo of Walt Whitman (''take off your hat to no man''), which a college roommate had discovered in the preface to the second edition of ''Leaves of Grass.'' I began to find them in newspaper columns as fillers and on certain kinds of calendars. At that early time, if you gave me a quotation, any quotation, I would give it respectful attention. To this day I am unable to pass a quote on a church bulletin board without reading it. I am looking for something, some perfect expression. Now I am old enough to know that what I am looking for is actually a neater version of my own jumbled thoughts.

In 1960 I began to be more orderly in my attention to quotations. As a teacher I had a blackboard behind me, and it was clear that many of my students were not exactly set on fire by the niceties of English instruction. I collected quotations on little cards and had a student copy one of them on the board each day. The practice assured me that a bored kid would not be leaving the class entirely empty-handed. There they stood silently on the board behind me.

I tried to challenge my students (''physiognomy is destiny'') or to amuse them (''the best way to keep your friends is not to give them away''). Two selection rules governed: They should not be moralistic statements (''it's always later than you think''), they should not be sentimentally obvious (''I sorrowed that I had no shoes until I saw a man with no feet''). In 13 years I collected some 700 of them and when I retired left my hoard with another teacher who was also a collector.

Before I left I went through my haul and picked out 40 that I liked, jammed them onto a single sheet, and from my touring retirement van passed the sheets out to hitchhikers and others in imitation of Johnny Appleseed. Two favorites from that elite list: ''This time, like all other times, is the best time, if we but knew what to do with it'' and ''If you eat cherries with your superiors, you get the pits in your eyes.''

There are attendant hazards in being a collector. You can become a champion bore to friends. Chesterton once had a character in a play speak nothing but quotations. The audience howled every time he opened his mouth. Fortunately, as easily as they flow into the mind, they also flow out.

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