Quotable quotes are all very well, but the sincere reader yearns for the full picture

When Barack Obama was first elected President, I vaguely recalled the words “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” The person I mentioned this to instantly named the poem: William Wordsworth’s French Revolution.

He had Googled it, naturally. The search engine is now the largest resource available to those with an appetite for sound bites. Before Google, a memory sparked and we flipped through books to find the exact words. For inspiration, we might look into a dictionary of quotations. One such book sat on our shelf when I was young, claiming to be useful to students and speech writers. But even in my greenest days I never inserted a quotation in an essay just to sound erudite. Surely the teacher would find me out, and the book I quoted from might be grossly inappropriate to my subject. Far safer to have actually remembered a connection between one’s subject and a text, and to track down the exact words in context. (Rereading Wordsworth’s poem this year, Anno Obami 5, I know even better the importance of context.)

So instead of using our dictionary of quotations to enhance my homework, I read it end to end one summer holiday. I discovered Daniel Webster, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde and other quotable notables. “Anon” was most often listed, and I eventually figured out why.

The readability of any book of quotations rests entirely in the selection and arrangement of the material. The quotations themselves are trite space fillers, often forgettable when taken out of context: they belong at the bottom of Reader’s Digest articles. The best ones are signboards that urge the reader not to stop here but to discover the wider context, the full picture.

One rainy day I read What the Dormouse Said: Lessons for Grown-ups from Children’s Books, in which quotations are organised under Defiance, Family Woes, Nature, Animals, Growing Wise, Silence, Hidden Truths and other categories. Its editor, Amy Gash, discovered children’s books only when she read stories to her own children. In her own youth, she writes, she just read any literature she came across. For Gash, this upside down exposure to children’s literature undoubtedly laid bare the extraordinary quality of writing to be found there, but the quality of writing in children’s books is splendid no matter how you come across it.

For me, this collection laid bare that I have some catching up to do.

There are many works named here that were written and became classics after I grew up, and many old ones I need to reread. The book is full of signboards. Since I’m still cautious with quotations, I offer the reader just one from a classic I know, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: “The sun is shining. That is the Magic. The flowers are growing — the roots are stirring. That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic — being strong is the Magic. The Magic is in me.”

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