Some Favorite Quotations
Favorite first lines are marked with an * asterisk - sorry about the excess of George Orwell, but he is the Master. I've also included some favorite book titles (whether or not I liked the book) in italics. Occasionally, I comment [in square brackets] on why I included an item.
I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I have no doubt Miss Mackay wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls’ heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite. Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads.
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Mis Jean Brodie
Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.
Les Murray, 'The Meaning of Existence'
Choice is a great burden. The call to invent one's life, and to do it continuously, can sound unendurable. Totalitarian regimes aim to stamp out the possibility of choice, but what aspiring autocrats do is promise to relieve one of the need to choose. This is the promise of “Make America Great Again” - it conjured the allure of an imaginary past in which one was free not to choose.
Moab is My Washpot (Stephen Fry - autobiography)
[Not the result of deep reading, this one: I found it on the relevant Wikipedia page]
I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one's own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original's better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.
Edward FitzGerald, defending his own translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayamm
Swiftly along the river and down the lane the adult bats flew in deft quietness and were gone by the time they were seen.
John McGregor, Reservior 13
The aim of philosophy... is to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.
The boy reported - after the Sergeant had slept for a few hours, which was not nearly enough - that YouTube had actually gone down for ten minutes under the weight of traffic. The story was truly global, truly immense: not Obama, not Justin Bieber, not Psy and not Bin Laden had ever touched this, he said. Not Khaled Saeed and not Mohamed Bouazizi, either. If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of Fifty Shades of Gray starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel. they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, the boy said, because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch. If you asked the boy, personally, he would say that Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes possessed fractionally more win, although nobody could replace Basil Rathbone because he was entirely the godhead.
Nick Harkaway, Tigerman
These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
You had to be patient with young people. It was natural for them to be pious, full of noise and sanctimonious gesture, sure of their creeds.
John Gardner, Nickel Mountain
Man, civilised western man, has always maintained that in a bloodthirsty world he alone was comparatively harmless. Consider the view of the African jungle given by Victorian hunters. The hunter assumed that every creature he met would attack him and accordingly shot it on sight ... it would be described in his memoirs as ‘the great brute’.
Mary Midgley, Beast and Man
Your shins bristle with hairs and your chest with shag, but, Pannychus, you have a hairless mind.
Should each do the best he can for himself? Or should we do the best we can for each? If each does what is best for himself, we do worse than we could for each. But we do better for each only if each does worse than he could for himself. This is just a special case of a wider problem .... Commuters: Each goes faster if he drives, but if all drive each goes slower than if all take buses; Soldiers: Each will be safer if he turns and runs, but if all do more will be killed than if none do; Fishermen: When the sea is overfished, it can be better for each if he tries to catch more, worse for each if all do; Peasants: When the land is overcrowded, it can be better for each if he or she has more children, worse for each if all do.
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons
I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as he was set on staying still, like it ain't the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
A man vows, and yet will not cast away the means of breaking his vow. Is it that he distinctly means to break it? Not at all; but the desires which tend to break it are at work in him dimly, and make their way into his imagination, and relax his muscles in the very moment when he is telling himself over again the reasons for his vow.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark way with us. Oh, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.
But still between his Darkness and his Brightness
There pas'd a mutual glance of great politeness.
Byron, The Vision of Judgement
The taste of English amateurs has been too much framed upon pictures imported from Flanders and Holland; consequently our countrymen are easily brow-beat on the subject of painting; and hence it is common to hear a man say: 'I am no judge of pictures.' But O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.
William Blake, Letter to Richard Phillips
Great works of art pass through us like storm winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers … We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford.
It couldn’t miss, sir! It’s down-to-earth, it’s simple, it’s untrue, and it’s familiar enough and trivial enough to be understood and loved by our greedy, nervous, illiterate sponsors.
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
What would you have me do?
Seek for the patronage of some great man,
And like a creeping vine on a tall tree
Crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone?
No thank you! ... Make my knees
Callous, and cultivate a supple spine,
Wear out my belly grovelling in the dust?
No thank you! Scratch the back of any swine
That roots up gold for me? ...
No thank you! No, thank you! And again
I thank you! —But ...
Never to make a line I have not heard
In my own heart; yet, with all modesty
To say: “My soul, be satisfied with flowers,
With fruit, with weeds even; but gather them
In the one garden you may call your own.
Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
Human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all the sense of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
The hero of a David Lodge novel says that you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time. Voting is like that.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
As gatekeeper to the upper middle class, the elite university has as its primary social function the sorting of the population... It detects existing inequalities, exacerbates them, and certifies them. And whatever else it does, it serves as a finishing school where the select learn to recognize one another, forging a class consciousness that has lately hardened into a de facto caste system. But for that very reason... it is also the place where the sentiment that every inequality is illegitimate must be performed most strenuously.
Michael B. Crawford
A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson)
The Dust that Falls from Dreams (Louis de Bernieres)
I Married a Communist (Philip Roth)
It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, I (ii)
[T]he practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way that it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratised unity on a society which lacks genuine moral concensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear.
Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue
Adam was but human - this explains it all. He did not want to apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.
Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
To asperse a sunset in these days is a political indiscretion; and equally so, to praise it, if there happens to be a cement-factory in the foreground that ought to be praised instead. Somebody must trespass on the taboos of modern nationalism, in the interests of human reason. Business can't. Diplomacy won't. It has to be people like us.
Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana
We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction, and so in a certain sense the conditions are idea, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 107
The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.
Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.
[A one-sentence masterclass on the deployment of irony]
The Gospel frequently declares that the true Disciples of Christ must suffer Persecution; but that the Church of Christ should persecute others, and force others by Fire and Sword, to embrace her Faith and Doctrine, I could never yet find in any of the Books of the New Testament.
John Locke, Essay Concerning Toleration
The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.
James Wood on Thomas Pynchon, in How Fiction Works
How well he's read, to reason again reading.
Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, I (i)
You revere me; but what if your reverence tumbles one day? Beware lest a statue slay you.
Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
It is good to know that there remain wild corners of this dreadfully civilised world.
Robert Falcon Scott, Diaries (August 29, 1911)
[Content aside, a masterclass in how to construct beautiful, powerful sentences]
Devotion to the nation is perhaps the deepest and most widespread religion of the present age. Like the ancient religions, it demands its persecutions, its holocausts, its lurid, heroic cruelties: like them, it is noble, primitive, brutal and mad.
Bertrand Russell, War as an Institution
Kindest of quadrupeds ...
Primly dressed, linen-collared one,
you look so still, for your speed,
shield that carries us to the fight
and bears us from it.
Les Murray on the subject of beds, 'Homage to the Launching Place,' in Learning Human
It was all my mother’s fault. She had brought us up never to share a lemonade bottle with other boys, and wiping it with your hand, she said, was no protection, so I knew the dainty dab with the napkin the priest gave the chalice made no difference at all. There was God of course, in whose omnipotence I was supposed to believe: He might run to some mild antisepsis. But then He might not. That I might catch syphilis from the chalice might be all part of His plan. The other place I was frightened of contracting it was the seat of a public lavatory, and that the rim of the toilet should be thus linked with the rim of the chalice was also part of the wonderful mystery of God.
Alan Bennett, The Complete Talking Heads
For we all like to believe, do we not, if only in stories? People who find religious belief absurd are often upset if a novelist breaks the illusion of reality he has created… But in matters of belief (as in literary convention), it is a nice question how far you can go in this process without throwing out something vital.
David Lodge, How Far Can You Go?
Much about our lives is like a very intensely felt dream we can't quite get other people to listen to properly.
Alain de Botton, How to Recount Your Dreams
A[rtificial] I[ntelligence] is one of the most important technologies in history, and we’re going about it wrong. To do it right, we need information about the mind. The people who know the mind best aren’t neurobiologists, they’re novelists & poets. Science must learn from the arts. A scientist who know only science is in no position to do science.
David Gelernter, interviewed in The Atlantic
In language, as in politics, the conservative runs into the fact that the old is only what used to be new.
I look at an empty page and it's like an empty sky waiting for a bird to fly across it.
David Almond, My Name is Mina
We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can't fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we'll have someplace to live.
It was a delightful visit; - perfect, in being much too short.
Jane Austen, Emma
When the world was created, a man had to be created especially for that world. We are all deformed by our adaptation to the freedom of God.
Clarice Lispector, Brasília
The art of public life consists to a great extent of knowing where to stop, and going a bit farther.
Saki (H. H. Munro), The Unbearable Bassington
The most frequent question writers are asked is some variant on, “Do you write every day, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?” I want to snarl, “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?” But I understand the question is really about the central mystery – what is inspiration? Eternal vigilance, in my opinion. Being on the watch for your material, day or night, asleep or awake.
Hilary Mantel (interview)
It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.
Umberto Eco (interview)
Q: How did you arrive upon the image of a toad for work or labour?
A: Sheer genius.
Interview with Philip Larkin
After the rulers have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the rulers then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.
Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)
You cannot imagine how pleased I am that the notion of natural selection has acted as a purgative on your bowels of immutability.
Charles Darwin, Letter to Joseph Hooker
One to destroy, is murder by the law;
And gibbets keep the lifted hand in awe;
To murder thousands, takes a specious name
War’s glorious art, and gives immortal fame.
Edward Young, Love of Fame (1728)
Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.
David McCullough (interview)
I never knew anybody, anywhere I have been, who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.
Ursula LeGuinn, 'Solitude'
It is one thing to start by considering the known facts, and to come to a conclusion. It is quite another to start with a preconceived idea, and try to prove it. A scholar’s worst enemy is his own mind.
Linguist Alice Kober, quoted in in Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth
At first, the countless violations of the law by our new rulers still caused a degree of disquiet. But among the incomprehensible features of those months, my father later recalled, was the fact that soon life went on as if such crimes were the most natural thing in the world.
Joachim Fest, Not I [Germany during the rise of Hitler]
Started Early, Took My Dog (Kate Atkinson)
"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself: Do trousers matter?"
"The mood will pass, Sir."
P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
I had an outline with the entire plot in two acts and one intermission. But the characters kept doing things they weren't supposed to do. The problem with outlining is that you don't actually know yet who these people are. You learn who they are by writing about them.
Tony Kushner, explaining why Angels in America is seven hours long.
It is well known that the Americans have been striving for 30 years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and that in spite of all they can do they continue to stink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption.... [W]e find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends -- and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it.
Friedrich Engels, Introduction to 'The Civil War in France' (written in 1891!)
That's what hell must be like, small talk to the babbling of Lethe about the good old days when we wished we were dead.
Samuel Beckett, Embers
Universities incline wits to sophistry and affectation.
Sir Francis Bacon
[A great first line that opens the novelist-narrator's discussion of great first lines]
* It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me.
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers
[From possibly the best historical novel I have ever read]
Like all beautiful and fickle persons, Zeb aroused a desperate loyalty in others.
Maria McCann, As Meat Loves Salt
Our inimitable Shakespear is a Stumbling-block to the whole tribe of these rigid critics. Who would not rather read one of his Plays, where there is not a single Rule of the Stage observed, than any Production of a modern Critick, where there is not one of them violated?
Joseph Addison, in the Spectator
The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
It would have been possible to back out of his engagements by assuming the license of the free artistic spirit, but he loathed such arrogance. He had a number of friends who played the genius card when it suited, failing to show up for this or that in the belief that whatever local upset it caused, it could only increase respect for the compelling nature of their high calling. These types - novelists were by far the worst - managed to convince friends and families that not only their working hours but every nap and stroll, every fit of silence, depression, or drunkenness, bore the exculpatory ticket of high intent.
Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
The Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai)
An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England (Brock Clarke)
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire (Karen Elizabeth Gordon - a grammar guide)
*It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines
[Gets my personal vote for Wittiest Exchange in English Literature]:
Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Above all, she wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment's thought, and that would take time.
Ian McEwan, Atonement
[A great LAST line - so great, it makes me seethe with authorial envy]:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerlad, The Great Gatsby
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,
Don't let anyone bomb me.
John Betjeman, 'In Westminster Abbey'
The fact that a writer needed solitude didn’t mean he was cut off or selfish. A writer was like a monk in his cell praying for the world - something he performed alone, but for other people.
Tobias Woolf, Old School
The leisure which the Athenian enjoyed is popularly attributed to the existence of slavery. Slavery had something to do with it, but not so much as the fact that three-quarters of the things which we slave for the Greek simply did without.
H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Call It Sleep (Henry Roth)
"I am very glad my presence has made any difference to you," said Dorothea, who had a vivid memory of evenings in which she had supposed that Mr. Casaubon's mind had gone too deep during the day to be able to get to the surface again.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
[Best couplet in the language?]
Tall pomps of stone where goddesses lay sleeping
Dreaming of being woken by some chisel's kiss.
W.H. Auden, 'Bucolics VI: Plains
I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines, who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasure essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)
A picture held us captive.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Unnumbered suppliants crowd preferement's gate
Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great
Delusive fortune hears th'incessant call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
Samuel Johnson, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'
The saint, at any rate Tolstoy's kind of saint, is not trying to work at any improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put something different in its place. One obvious expression of this is that celibacy is "higher" than marriage. If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth - including love, in the ordinary sense of caring more for one human being than for another - then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive.
George Orwell, 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool'
You are an over-excited little man with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of your natural gifts.
Tom Stoppard, Travesties [James Joyce to Tristan Tzara]
The multitude will hardly believe the excessive force of education, and in the difference of modesty between men and women, ascribe that to nature, what is altogether owing to early instruction. Miss is scarcely three years old, but she is spoken to every day to hide her leg, and rebuked in good earnest if she shows it; whilst Little Master at the same age is bid to take up his coats, and piss like a man.
Bertrand Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1714)
[From a brilliant, harrowing, hugely under-rated novel]
Like all barbers, this one entertained him with gossip about the Sultan and his courtiers, and then helpfully informed him that a foolproof way to avoid insect bites for a whole twelve months was to say “Nevruz suyu” on the Persian new year. Rustem Bey raised his eyebrows, the quantity of balderdash presented as indisputable fact never ceasing to amaze him.
Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings
I have imbibed such a love for money that I keep some sequins in a drawer to count, and cry over them once a week.
Lord Byron, Letters
Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?
Tom Stoppard, Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Public education has always expended its energies in the support of prejudice; it teaches its pupils, not the fortitude that shall bring every proposition to the test of examination, but the art of vindicating such tenets as may chance to be established.
William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
You say that pretty girls are on fire with love for you, Sextus, you that have the face of a man swimming under water.
Why does this strange phenomenon occur? What causes it? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is at once resisted.
St. Augustine, Confessions
Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.
B.F. Skinner, in New Scientist, May 1964
Lo! men have become the tools of their tools.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
[W]hether in literary journals or even in his own works, one professor of philosophy will not fail to take into careful consideration the absurd and preposterous notions of another, and will do this with weighty countenance and official gravity so that it quite looks as though we were actually dealing here with real advances in human knowledge. In return for this, his own abortive efforts soon receive the same honour and indeed we know that nihil officiosius quam cum mutuum muli scabunt [nothing is more dignified than when two mules scratch each other].
Arthur Schopenhauer, 'On Philosophy at the Universities'
* As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept, I dreamed a Dream.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress
I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly-line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.
Studs Terkel, Working
* As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
George Orwell, England your England
* The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
* There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all the tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is a bad man but a good man's task?
Lao-tsu, Tao te Ching
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (Lorrie Moore)
The Nice and the Good (Iris Murdoch)
When We Dead Awaken (Henrik Ibsen)
Mourning Becomes Electra (Eugene O'Neil)
* High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
David Lodge, Changing Places
Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its students.
[T]he great problem of packaging, which every experienced chemist knows, was well known to God Almighty, who solved it brilliantly, as he is wont to, with cellular membranes, eggshells, the multiple peel of oranges, and our own skins, because after all we too are liquids. Now, at that time there did not exist polyethylene, which would have suited me perfectly since it is flexible, light, and splendidly impermeable: but it is also a bit too incorruptible, and not by chance God Almighty himself, although he is a master of polymerization, abstained from patenting it: He does not like incorruptible things.
Primo Levi The Periodic Table
I been in sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots (Susan Straight)
[Best first line ever?]
* It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
[Or, on second thoughts, this one?]
* As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.
George Orwell, Marrakesh
Resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when you are walking in the snow. You doze off and die in your sleep.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
Every time I see a mansion being built in the capital I fancy I can see the whole countryside covered with hovels.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because it is a humble activity, yet accepts shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy, and as a result neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
John William Gardner (American politician)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin)
The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. LeGuin)
I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects... and Heaven have mercy on us all - Presbyterians and Pagans alike - for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Wrong About Japan (Peter Carey)
The Fat Man in History (Peter Carey)
Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should be silent.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
About the middle of the sixteenth century there lived beside the banks of the Rivel Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honorable as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues. In a village that bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade; his wife bore him children whom he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking and honest; he had not one neighbour who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursued one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer.
Heinrich von Kleist, the first paragraph of Michael Kohlhaas
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers)
I carry my adornment on my soul.
I do not dress up like a popinjay;
But inwardly, I keep my daintiness.
I do not bear with me, by any chance,
An insult not yet washed away - a conscience
Yellow with unpurged bile - an honor frayed
To rags, a set of scruples badly worn.
I go caparisoned in gems unseen,
Trailing white plumes of freedom, garlanded
With my good name - no figure of a man,
But a soul clothed in shining armor, hung
With deeds for decorations, twirling - thus -
A bristling wit, and swinging at my side
Courage, and on the stones of this old town
Making the sharp truth ring, like golden spurs!
Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
* In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by a large number of people - the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.
George Orwell, Shooting An Elephant
The Great Railway Bazaar (Paul Theroux)
She Stoops to Conquer (Oliver Goldsmith)
[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.... When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
[Best example I know of Horace's admonition to begin the story in media res.]
John Webster, The White Devil
Three minutes thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome, and three minutes is a long time.
A.E.Houseman, Juvenalis Saturae
* In deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun.
Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
Too many people have decided to do without generosity in order to practice charity.
Albert Camus, The Fall
It is good to know the customs of various peoples, in order to judge our own more soundly and not to think that everything that is contrary to our own way of doing things is worthy of scorn and against reason, as those who have seen nothing commonly think.
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method
You must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
T.S. Eliot, The Rock
* If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it.
JD Salinger, A Catcher in the Rye
Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)
Some Hope (Edward St. Aubyn)
Love's Labour's Lost (William Shakespeare)
At night, the refrigerators made noises like buffalo grazing.
Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
The Time of Our Singing (Richard Powers)
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (Richard Powers)
Plowing the Dark (Richard Powers)
His hilarity was like a scream from a crevasse.
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
Novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing. It must make it so difficult for you to choose a book at the library, and you must feel so guilty when you fail to shriek with delight.
George Orwell, In Defence of the Novel
If one day I could just approach the originality and interest of what actually goes on!
Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles)
Ada, or Ardour (Vladimir Nabokov)
* Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.
George Orwell, review of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom
You write with ease, to show your breeding,
But easy writing's curst hard reading.
Richard Sheridan, Clio's Protest
Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (Eric Newby)
And all our projections fail to curve where it curves. It is the black hole out of which no radiation escapes to us.
Les Murray, 'The Future,' in Learning Human
* Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.
George Orwell, Reflections on Gandhi
I hope Lady Lyell & yourself will remember whenever you want a little rest & have time how very glad we shd be to see you here. I will show you my pigeons! Which is the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to human beings.
Charles Darwin, Letter to Charles Lyell
* I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
It is a demonstration of the ludicrous - yes! I dare to use that word - the ridiculous and ludicrous perversity of my family that - in a period when the country and indeed the planet was engaged in such momentous affairs - and when the family business needed the most scrupulous attention, because in the aftermath of Francisco's death the lack of leadership was becoming alarming, there was discontent in the plantations and slackness at the two Ernakulam godowns, and even the Gamma Company's long-term customers had begun to listen to the siren voices of its competitors - and when, to crown it all, his own wife had announced her pregnancy, and was bearing what turned out to be not only their firstborn but also their only child, the only child, what is more, of her generation, my mother Aurora, the last of the da Gamas - my grandfather became increasingly obsessed with this question of counterfeit Lenins.
Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh