“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
–Francis Bacon, Of Studies
“Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.”
–Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Word Book
The Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) is a magnificent beast of a tome, a rare glittering creature found only in libraries and the homes of the most devoted littérateurs. Most books have one or two quotable lines. The YBQ has over twelve thousand. And though it is 1100 pages long, it remains, at heart, the project of a single man: Fred Shapiro, a librarian in the Yale Law School.
Shapiro keeps an untidy office, full of old law books and paper towers on the verge of tumbling. One could also see the YBQ as an untidy work: it includes five versions of the Golden Rule, dozens of pop songs from the 1930s, and 144 by Ambrose Bierce. It was compiled with the help of hundreds of scholars and volunteers — a collection of word nerds with blogs and mailing lists and access to cavernous archives of printed material. It speaks with no clear voice, and has no underlying theme.
But when a quotation dictionary has a good editor — someone with the judgment to separate the great quotes from the merely adequate — it becomes one of the richest, most meaningful things a person can read.
Fred Shapiro is a very good editor, and he works with the editors at Yale University Press to cut through redundancy, platitudes, and clever, empty words. In the tradition of the Oxford English Dictionary, he researches every single quote until he’s as sure as a person can be of the original source. He makes new discoveries every month about where our words really come from.
Shapiro’s research and personality go hand-in-hand. Like any good quotation, Shapiro doesn’t waste words; his speech is slow and careful. So are his movements. When he leafs through the YBQ to find quotes, he does so with the gentle precision of someone who’s done so a thousand times before. He doesn’t slip quotations into his speech, but he could easily pick up the habit; he has the encyclopedic memory of a person who writes encyclopedias. I brought dozens of quotations into our first conversation, and whenever I read one, he knew within a second whether he’d put it into the book.
For Shapiro, the YBQ is a labor of love; he’s been working on it for longer than the average marriage. Some could argue that “the covers of his book are too far apart” (Ambrose Bierce again), but Shapiro tells me, “If I had a million dollars, I’d pay my publishers to make the book bigger!” I’m with him on that. After all, we’re coming up with new quotes all the time. And Shapiro is struggling with the sequel as we speak.
The Trouble With Quotations
Quotations are the language of every age. They let us hear the voices of generations past, with minimum loss of fidelity. They fill your Tumblr and your grandma’s journal from when she was a teenager. Without them, every single author would be weaker, deprived not only of clever epigrams but of a thousand simple, elegant phrases.
As Philip Stanhope once said: “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing well.” Quotations are important enough that we ought to get them right. And yet… we don’t. We change around the words, making them ugly as we go. We take the most beautiful sentences in the English language and apply them willy-nilly to our own causes, heedless of the author’s intent. And sometimes, we replace the authors with our personal heroes.
“I never said most of the things I said.”
Shapiro’s list of the people most often quoted saying things they never really said:
- Albert Einstein
- Abraham Lincoln
- Winston Churchill
- George Bernard Shaw
- Oscar Wilde
And, most of all, Mark Twain: “These words just get stuck to his mouth […] people want quotations to come from great geniuses, but most come from very ordinary people,” Shapiro says.
Worse yet are the quotes that come from nobody. The Washington Post, in 1925, claimed that “one picture is worth ten thousand words”, according to “an old Chinese proverb”. Shapiro searched high and low for the proverb, but none was ever found. Two years after the Post article, advertiser Frederick Barnard took off the “ten” and gave us the quote we know today.
And so a seven-word quotation gets a third of a page of explanatory text, and Shapiro gets another gray hair. (His hair is all gray by now –– there are a lot of quotes in this book.)
Even worse are the quotations we forget about. One of Shapiro’s motives in creating the YBQ was to compensate for certain failures in other quotation books. When he began, the most recent edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations only contained seven of the World Almanac’s “Top Ten Quotes of the 20th Century.” Among those they missed:
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
If Oxford itself couldn’t keep up with the pace of the late 20th century, who else would stand a chance in our ever-busier modern world?
Fred Shapiro knew the task was enormous, but he also knew that something had to change. And so, with support from the Mellon Foundation and a pile of quotation dictionaries from Sterling Memorial Library, he began to work.
The Story of Shapiro
“There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision… and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory… the first kind of intelligence and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”
The YBQ is a book for foxes.
Yes, the index — which is over 200 pages long — may appeal to hedgehogs, who can search for quotes on “war” and “justice” and “culture” and “cruelty.” (The last brings up Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, the Marquis du Sade, and the U.S. Constitution.)
But the experience of reading the whole book is wild and unpredictable —not to mention “chock-full of curiosities, melodrama, spectacle, instruction, and entertainment” (John Barth, The Floating Opera).
Where else could you find Robert Burns1 and George Burns2 on the same page?
Shapiro is a fox himself: “I’m a dilettante, and this kind of book is compelling to me, because quotations let us view the full sweep of literature and politics and history.”
He began collecting famous words at age ten, when his father brought home a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, still the world’s most popular series of quotation dictionaries. He later attended MIT, where he edited a column of quotations in a campus newspaper, collecting his favorites in a large binder. When a colleague at the paper stole his binder, he lost a lot of words — but the very best stayed inside his head, waiting to be used somewhere else.
When Oxford called, asking if he wanted to write them a legal reference book, Shapiro began work on The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations. Writing in 1993, he had access to the earliest online databases and was able to create a work far more thorough than its predecessors.
This led him, naturally, to a new kind of general quotation book. Shapiro aimed to set the YBQ apart from Bartlett’s and Oxford with a focus on the vernacular, the modern, and the American: “My goal was to create a more comprehensive book of quotations than anything else available.”
And he did, though it may have taken longer than expected:
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, isn’t usually in this kind of book. But neither is Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, who makes it in for the lyric “me so horny.” Or Jim Morrison, the drugged-out singer for The Doors, who once spent the night in a New Haven jail cell for insulting a police officer. Or the men of Monty Python — who get not one, but thirteen quotations (the same number as Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige). And so on.
The Book of Everything
“For also knowledge itself is power.”
–Francis Bacon, Of Heresies
If I had to give my children a single book to read that would provide as close to a complete education as possible, I’d choose the YBQ. It is, all at once:
- A collection of small biographies, identifying some of history’s greatest thinkers and explaining both their personal views and their place in the world
- A canon’s worth of great literature, packing in the best of the Bible, Shakespeare, and a thousand novelists and poets
- A repository of the words I’d like my child to keep in their head — mantras for patience and calm, eloquent remarks for use in sophisticated company, and jokes that shake the whole room.
Not to mention something like an oral history of history itself, told both by its celebrities and by the people working behind the scenes…
“This will be the place for a Village.”
–John Batman, upon discovering the land which would later house the city of Melbourne, Australia
…and including perspectives that you’ve likely never thought about.
“My opinion is that the Northern States will manage somehow to muddle through.”
–John Bright, English politician, on the American Civil War
In addition to all this, the YBQ gives a history of feminism in a few hundred quotes, stretching back for centuries:
“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives.”
–Abigail Adams, in a letter to John Adams
“Mother told me a couple of years ago, ‘Sweetheart, settle down and marry a rich man.’ I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man.’”
–Cher, to a London newspaper
The book also offers a splendid satirical view of humanity. Even outside of Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx, we are entertained by the former mayor of Washington D.C.:
“Other than the killings, we have one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
– Marion Barry
Not to mention George H.W. Bush:
“For seven and a half years I have worked alongside [Ronald Reagan] and I am proud to be his partner. We have had triumphs, we have made mistakes, and we have had sex.”
(He meant to say “setbacks” — context Shapiro gleefully provides.)
Finally, the YBQ is a toolbox full of textual tricks to get you through the day. When I turned in the first draft of this piece, late, to my managing editor, I included Hofstadter’s Law:
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
—Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach
As far as I can tell, he didn’t get mad!
“That Which Can Be Changed”
My interview with Shapiro also cued me into one of the 20th century’s most powerful thought-nuggets: Serenity Prayer, second only to the Lord’s Prayer in popularity.
“O God and Heavenly Father. Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.”
Before Shapiro began his research, the Serenity Prayer was thought to be the invention of Reinhold Niebuhr, “Barack Obama’s favorite theologian,” who first set it down in 1937.
But when Shapiro dug deeper, he found that something was amiss. Seven different newspapers quoted the prayer up to a year before its canonical date of invention. This cast serious doubt on Niebuhr’s invention — a big enough event in verbal history that the New York Times ran a front-page story on Shapiro’s research. Then Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, fired back, claiming that Shapiro didn’t understand the world of sermons and that “only my father could have written this prayer.” Another front-page story in the New York Times covered the controversy.
This incident prompted more frantic research on Shapiro’s part, until, to his chagrin, his team (mostly volunteer quotation-lovers from around the country) found a journal from one of Niebuhr’s acolytes, with a 1932 entry acknowledging the prayer. It now appears in the YBQ as the definitive creation of Elisabeth Sifton’s father. (Shapiro called the New York Times again, asking if they’d print a third story, but they told him enough was enough.)
“…the courage to change that which can be changed.”
What can you change, in a book of quotes?
You can’t force the famous figures of your day to be articulate or funny. (Sometimes — as Shapiro mourns — you lose Ronald Reagan and get Herman Cain in return.) You also can’t change the fact that it’s hard to come across new ideas:
“There is no new thing under the sun.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:9
“It’s déjà vu all over again.”
– Yogi Berra
But you can change the quotes you select, and you can change your book’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion. For the first edition of the YBQ, Shapiro searched through books of quotations by women and African-Americans to counter the British-white-man bias of Bartlett’s. He’s ramping up that search for the next edition, and he also plans to communicate with scholars of Eastern literature to bring in more quotes from that half of the world.
But even with a new research team and a new collection of advanced quotation-finding technology, writing the sequel is not going to be easy. Now that the book’s index is finished, every new entry leads to dozens of small adjustments.
“I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.”
–Poul Anderson, quoted in New Scientist, 25 Sept. 1969
More troubling still, Shapiro isn’t in a good position to find the best quotes of the modern world — the YOLOs, the Imma-let-you-finishes, and the man-your-man-could-smell-likes.
I suggested these three, but Shapiro will need hundreds more if he wants to find quotes worthy of the book. After all, we live in what the well-known Chinese curse3 would call “interesting times.”
You, reader, are in a position to help. If you have any favorite quotations spoken in the last ten years — political, musical, advertorial, whatever — send them to:
And I will format them and give them to Fred. Do this, and there is an excellent chance your words (well, your choice of someone else’s words) will end up in a book that sells tens of thousands of copies.
Do be warned, though: Fred has little patience for modern quotations, which tend towards “the sardonic and the stupid.” Even the New York Times, he tells me, has trouble finding good quotes from recent movies. What’s more, President Obama has delivered fewer good lines in the course of his presidency than JFK did in his first inaugural address. I try to fight back — why would presidential speechwriters or screenwriters be getting stupider over time? — but of course, he challenges me to name some good lines from a recent Hollywood film and I can’t remember anything.
Let’s prove him wrong together, readers. (He’d be very grateful if we did.)
I could quote this book for another thousand pages, but as a great man once said:
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
1“The main thing about acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
2 “Man’s inhumanity to man // makes countless thousands mourn!”
3 ”No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.”
–Fred Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
–Francis Bacon, Of Studies