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On browsing in Bartlett

"I hate quotations; tell me what you know."m The exclamation is Emerson's, and is duly included in the 15th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, publishied in the 125th year since John Bartlett, the Cambridge bookseller, compiled a "small thin volume" of everyday sayings. Also included is Kipling's derogatory description of a character who "wrapped himself in quotations -- as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of emperors." The editors of this newly published volume, totally more than 1,500 pages, are not afraid to give evidence against themselves.

There is indeed much to be said against the habit of quoting others. Nothing is more infuriating than to have an adversary in debate claim the authority of some obscure source -- particularly if one cannot at the moment counter it with a quotation of one's own. We have all known people who seemed to live and breathe by the words of worthies long since departed -- pedants who appeared not to have usually been old-fashioned eccentrics; but the newer generation, less learned and less pompous, is often the slave of someone else's utterance. The young may not quote Virgil or St. Augustine, but their talk is sprinkled with catchwords from the latest rock singer.

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Nevertheless, I have been perusing the new Bartlett's with pleasure: I have even copied out a few tags which I plan to let drop on appropriate occasion. "A Corinthian, a lad of mettle" is a phrase of Shakespeare's I had not known, or had forgotten: how better could one characterize the youth one enjoys for his engaging irresponsibility? "Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned." That is Dr. Johnson, expressing precisely what my wife feels when I suggest, of a summer afternoon, that we go sailing. Other gleanings I shall not divulge here, though readers will perhaps be indulgent if from time to time they fall from my pen.

Apart from this questionable practice of culling sayings that are not one's own, Bartlett's can serve many useful purposes. It is pleasant to learn, for instance, that when one talks about "labor of love," one is harking back to St. Paul; or that when speaking of getting out of the frying pan and into the fire, one is citing no less an authority than Tertullian. Our common speech is laced through with echoes of what great men and women before us have coined. To the extent that we are conscious of such origins we are culturally the richer -- and perhaps also we are the more modest about our own brilliant gifts as stylists.

There is, besides, the sheer pleasure of reading in so rich a compendium. The editors seem to eschew the idea that we should read their book for delight: it has been made, they assure us, to allow us to trace quotations to their sources, to find epithets appropriate to a need, and for other more or less practical uses. But here, in distilled form, is a good deal of the wit and wisdom of our heritage -- much of the beauty of its poets, much of the valor of its sages. No one should be ashamed of the fact that the wisdom comes in abbreviated form. Actually half of literature, at least, is working up to the climactic phrase that the anthologist snips off and hands us in convenient form. The dross can quite often be well discarded.

This new edition of Bartlett, like the one before it, has had for editor in chief Emily Morison Beck, the daughter of my old friend and teacher Samuel Eliot Morison. Perhaps it is in deference to the admiral that so large a number of passages are from his hero, Christopher Columbus. It was Emily Beck who saw that I received a copy of the book -- I had supplied her with some quotations from La Guardia, whose biography I was writing -- and I asked her to inscribe the volume. This she kindly did, picking for the flyleaf a quotation I shall treasure:

"As pines keep the shape of the wind when the wind has fled and is no longer there, so words guard the shape of man. . . ."