Bartlett’s, Step Aside

0300107986_1The Yale Book of Quotations, compiled by Fred R. Shapiro, is due out in October. But “aren’t there already books of quotations out there?” the review in Yale Alumni Magazine asks. “Do we need another?

“Fred Shapiro’s answer is Yes, and yes. There are people who pick up Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and think Let’s see if Shakespeare or Byron had anything catchy to say about lust that I can use in my speech to the regional sales representatives. Then there’s Shapiro, who picks up Bartlett’s and thinks There’s room for improvement here (although he’s too diplomatic to come out and say as much, unless provoked).”

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“Choosing his words with care, he said, ‘Bartlett’s emphasizes the fine art more than the science of quotations compilation. Completeness is not a goal that has come easily to quotations dictionaries.’ He ticked off notable omissions with mounting horror. ‘They leave out Reagan on the Berlin Wall, Lou Gehrig’s farewell, Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer.’

“He was so plainly aghast that I felt obliged to shake my head in sympathy — and, actually, I saw his point. Instead of reproducing page upon page of dust-furred bons mots from Pope or Tennyson, why not replace some of the least essential entries with more popular quotations which all sorts of people have actually used in our time as equipment for living? For example, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’; ‘Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth’; and ‘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.’

“(If, judging by a combined standard of poetic merit, concise delivery of useful meaning, and active circulation in the culture, you had to choose between the modern proverb ‘Life’s a bitch, and then you die’ and Tennyson’s ‘Ah, Christ, that it were possible / For one short hour to see / The souls we loved, that they might tell us / What and where they be,’ which would you include? Bear in mind that Tennyson still rates 46 entries in the Yale Book of Quotations, even though this lesser effort of his doesn’t make the cut.)”

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“Shapiro has consciously assembled what he calls a ‘modern canon’ of quotables — Mark Twain (‘perhaps the Shakespeare of modern quotations’), Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Yogi Berra, Mae West — who take their places alongside Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and the other usual suspects. With special sections on proverbs and modern proverbs, sayings, radio and television catchphrases, film lines, folk and anonymous songs, and political and advertising slogans, his book takes the popular, the commercial, and the contemporary as seriously as it takes the literary high culture of bygone centuries.

“And the citational apparatus, bolstered by far-reaching use of database search technology, is much more robust than in other quotations books. Where Bartlett’s will merely append a vague identifying label like ‘Remark,’ Shapiro goes deep. Some of his annotations amount to mini-essays on origins and usage. For instance, the one that traces ‘The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings’ through the sports media to Ralph Carpenter, a publicist at Texas Tech in the 1970s, then further back from there to related Southern popular sayings that may have inspired Carpenter (‘Church ain’t out ’til the fat lady sings’), provides a concise account of the flow of language and meaning through the strata of culture.”

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