The kernel of human kindness

Having been caught between the colliding tectonic plates of two totalitarian systems, it is easy to see how Grossman saw history not in terms of a matched battle between good and evil, but of a juggernaut trying to mow down seedlings of kindness. Despite - or because...

Kindness maketh man

What makes us human?  Simple kindness is a key element according to Grossman.  It depends partly on how you define 'human' of course, whether to describe a particular species, or in the sense that is redolent with tenderness, vulnerability, feeling, sensitivity. 'This...

An anatomy of anguish

This graphic and heart-rending typology of despair makes me conscious of having been mercifully spared much of anything that could be likened to despair.  Count your blessings, indeed. 'Abarchuk sighed.  ‘You know what, someone ought to write a treatise on despair in...

Love among the rubble

This refers to a love affair that burgeons in the grimness of Stalingrad, and I like how Grossman expands the spectrum to show that love can happen in the worst places, full of 'noise, stench and rubble'.  The photo by Angela Compagnone seemed the perfect backdrop for...

A thousand years of history

On the centenary of the October Revolution, I wonder how Russians today would feel about this terse statement by Grossman. 'Russia has seen many things during the one thousand years of its history. There is only one thing that Russia has not seen in one thousand years...

Communing with the cosmos

Glorious moment in this splendid, human novel: an army officer camped somewhere on the steppe enjoys a moment of embracing the magnificence of the night sky even while attending to more basic needs.  I liked the naturalness and philosophic communing with the cosmos in...

I have discovered that, with the passing of the years, my ignorance in countless areas… has become increasingly perfected while, at the same time, a lifelong practice of haphazard readings has left me with a sort of commonplace book in whose pages I find my own thoughts put into the words of others.   

Source: Alberto Manguel, The City of Words, CBC Massey Lecture Series (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2007), p. 3

Bringing you dozens, hundreds and soon thousands of quotations, collected over decades of attentive reading. First up, a hundred or so you may have missed from previous posts. Or perhaps you saw them and would like to revisit.

Be my guest and delve into this trove of quotes.

 

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Good versus kind

The 800 pages of Grossman's splendid Life and Fate is occasionally interlarded with heartfelt asides by the author, including pleas for simple, spontaneous kindness as opposed to state-sponsored, ideologically gift-wrapped 'good' with a capital 'G'.  Sometimes he...

Like atoms of radium

A fine metaphor for dots of kindness shining through darkness; Grossman's hope for the future is largely vested in the fact that the great machinery of totalitarian brutality has failed to extinguish these random sparks of human warmth. 'Even at the most terrible...

Eighteenth century entitlement

The vivid and voluble Mrs Poyser chipping in with her endless fount of wisdom and human commentary.   I like this as an early expression of someone having a sense of entitlement, which is how I read it.  Mrs Poyser is a character I like very much, but I wouldn't want...

Love in hyperbolical peas

How to show your love for the prettiest girl in the dairy?   As a gardener, you obviously present your avowals through delicious strawberries and outstanding peas. Sadly for her later suffering, Hetty was unmoved, preferring more glamorous and glittering attentions....

Unpitying consequences

This moving and powerful novel is all about the dire consequences of flighty and initially apparently inconsequential decisions, snow-balling into terrible choices. I often wonder about the random effects of 'small' decisions.  You might decide to delay going out by...

Well-chiselled politeness

I'm all for politeness and things being well-chiselled, but this is a chilling form - impeccable yet indifferent as to whether it delivers sugar or venom. 'He always spoke in the same deliberate, well-chiselled, polite way, whether his words were sugary or venomous.'...

Hunger in the raw

This is one of the most graphic, disturbing descriptions of the effects of severe hunger I have seen, written by a man who witnessed it in extreme situations of war and death camps.  It makes a mockery of the common throw away line of 'I'm starving ...' when in fact...

Let’s begin with man

This 800 page riveting novel is in some senses one giant plea for simple, spontaneous, sincere kindness towards and between individuals.  Not as an ideology, but as a day to day modus operandi.  If you read Grossman, you will be more on your guard against ideologies,...

The three ‘S’s of happinesss

A dulcet and sibilant summary of the source of felicity.  Wishing you thrice times blessings of slumber, sunshine and sweets.  I wonder if the three things also begin with 'S' in the original Russian. One of the strengths of Grossman's massive, powerful masterpiece is...

Space for thought

I like the notion that a confined physical space need not impede vast thought.  It reminds me of an injunction I read decades ago, in which the headmaster of Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science and civilization, told the then schoolboy to 'Think...

Tenderness vs severity

This encouragement to err on the side of tenderness is typical of George Eliot, who quietly, gently pleads for greater kindness and humanity in our dealings with one another.  And this plea comes from a favourite novel, Adam Bede.  Published in 1859 it evokes a period...

Gladness and despair

A finely phrased evocation of the twin elements of human experience of time, every new morning or moment heralding good or bad for somebody somewhere.  We can only work towards increasing and making the most of 'new forces' for gladness, genius and love. 'For there is...

Defining moments

It has always interested me how life can turn on a sixpence, for better and worst.  Adam Bede is one of the finest English novels, and it has a number of moments when events take a fateful turn.  Here we have Adam recalling - all his life - exactly where he was and...

Living like pigs

With all due respect to our porcine friends, I loved this line by the competent, demanding and house proud farmer's wife, Mrs Poyser, who keeps her 18th century home and dairy buildings spic and span, laying into the housemaids for their slatternly ways.  However,...

Dogs of war

How clever these creatures, able to distinguish between the sound of planes that unleash havoc and so should be hidden from, and those that simply fly over to unleash havoc elsewhere. ‘I don’t know … Take dogs, for example – they can tell different planes apart.  When...

Birds of war

The more I learn about birds, the more that 'bird brain' seems a misnomer.  Here they are in a war zone, imitating the whistle of bullets so accurately as to put experienced soldiers on the alert. ‘Once there was a terrible whistling right over our heads, but we...

Street dogs

I love dogs and the towns owned by them, always feeling reassured when you see dogs confidently, busily and independently trotting about the streets, checking that all is in order.  And this description of them as moving about 'like businessmen'! I have a theory that...

Of no human agency or purpose

Ever had that grim feeling as you drive through some urban bleakscape? Utility and ugliness both begin with 'u' but they don't need to be synonymous.  I coined the term 'beautility' to capture the meeting point of beauty and utility.  You'll see this propounded...

Wine-tasting à l’aristocrat

One of the charms of Brideshead is the free run the two young men occasionally enjoy of this vast, rambling pile, including its copious wine supply.  Left to their own devices, they decide to 'study' wine-tasting, following the book until it all becomes a blur. This...

Picking up bear habits

Aloysius must be one of the most famous bears in literature (apart from Winnie the Pooh) although Sebastian's curious relationship with him is never explained. After throwing up through Ryder's window, Sebastian sends a note saying that unless he is permitted to make...

Will to live or fear of death?

This refers to the looming death of the Brideshead patriarch, surrounded by his family. I was struck by the implication that the will to live gives strength, while the fear of death drains it. If you extend that, it might suggest that people are more motivated by...

Evidence of life?

This response by Charles Ryder to his wife's question is striking.  While change is inevitable, I am not sure it is 'evidence of life'.  The dead also change. Yet given the state of his marriage when his wife posed the question, and the about-to-bloom love with Julia,...

Maps for all comers

I wonder if such a mecca of maps exists?  A map for all seasons, all reasons.  Maps for thieves to find targets and for the police to find thieves. 'He sold maps to poets that showed where thoughts of power and clarity had come to other poets.  He sold well-digging...

Maps imagined

I love maps and regularly buy them. Here you have a map inside the map-seller's mind, drawing on his knowledge of the world and its ways. If only one could buy some of these maps, such as 'journeys to hidden sources of wisdom'. 'He would close his eyes, seeing clear...

Hello for the first time and goodbye for the last

This beautiful, gentle woman provides a haven to one of the protagonists.  A father finding himself, a son finding his father, and maps and lions in between. ‘You make love as if you’re saying hello for the first time and goodbye for the last.’   Source: Russell...

Where place and time meet

Russell Hoban's is one of the most imaginative, limpid novels I have ever read.  Maps loom large in it, real and imagined.  I loved this meeting of time and place.  See you there? "‘There is only one place,’ he said, ‘that place is time, and that time is now.  There...

The root of all wisdom

This is surely the crux of Brideshead Revisited and its most arresting, limpid quotation. It comes quite early in the book and it takes until the closing pages to see what that involves. And this in a book where love is thwarted. This was my first reading of...

Glee between two leaves

Ryder's father seems to have a quiet, relentless sadism about him, positively enjoying any discomfiture he can inflict on his son.  He's awful. 'I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic...

Long range planning

When I look at old or ancient things which we still cherish, I sometimes ask what we are creating today that will endure, not just materially, but in terms of holding value for future generations. This quotation takes that question a step further; not just what are we...

The power of a name

One of the finest devices of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is the flashback from present war to past Arcadia.  When Captain Ryder finds himself billeted to Brideshead, his past rises before him like a morning mist.  Names, of people or places, can evoke powerful...

Make way for others

This made me laugh but sadly, Thoreau didn't record the response of Dr. Bartlett when his kind invitation was declined.  I wonder if there are any statues of Thoreau anywhere, because he would not have approved if so. So, make the most of your time here, and then make...

The liberating influence of a river

I like the idea of a river's motion and indefinite length as being liberating.  But I'm pondering corresponding aspects of a lake that might also be liberating: the lack of motion allowing you to float on its surface looking up at the sky? Clearly, we need an essay on...

Joining thought to thought

Thoreau is a vigorous soul and I found it refreshing that he associates vigour with connected thought.  As you see from the second quotation below, thinking a thought about life and getting it expressed is a Herculean labour. 'No exercise implies more real manhood and...

My kind of uncle

Wouldn't you love an uncle who could walk up and down both sides of a straight ladder, especially the part about walking down the other side facing away from the ladder, kicking the steps behind him?  That sounds like a Jacques Tati kind of uncle. 'Hosmer says that a...

Dumb as …

Thoreau doesn't seem to have had a particularly harmonious relationship with formal religion, and he makes some side-swiping comments about the church and its representatives, while also being an immensely reverent - and in that sense - religious person. 'I see...

The lovable vigour of weeds

Yes, I know what he means.  I'm becoming increasingly tolerant of weeds and have started protecting and even nurturing some. As a result, our lawn is taking on the character of a wild flower meadow, and this week I was heartened to see the first invasion of cow...

Me too

And sometimes I'm not even sure I know what I think because it's been so long since I was invited to express it. 'I am surprised as well as delighted when any one wishes to know what I think.'  23 Mar 1853 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion...

A straight-cut ditch or a meandering brook

Thoreau's comment about education will resonate today with many teachers and students, but I am glad he included the word 'often'.  There are many teachers who have (or create) the freedom to turn meandering brooks not into straight-cut ditches but into expanding...

The heart of a rock

Having commented on the inaccessibility of rocks to the human spirit, Thoreau points out how much softer they can be than stony-spirited humans.  I smiled when I read that he would escape from hard, insensible men to go and commune with (relatively) soft-hearted...

It is hard to know rocks

I don't know rocks, but I do appreciate stone and am forever finding marvelous pebbles.  I've started using them in plant pots to cover the exposed earth; it reduces evaporation and therefore watering, but just as importantly, it looks beautiful.  Sometimes when a...

What was Nature thinking of?

Another of Thoreau's amazing fungus finds, only this one comes back to haunt him.  Installed in his house it reeks the place out, filling it with the heady vapours of dead rats.  As for his comment on nature, I hope it makes you laugh too. See also his parading a...

The fungus and the toadstool

Thoreau has a habit of bringing interesting things home from his walks the better to observe them. Twigs, fungi, animals (which he usually releases).  Two examples of his fungus-gathering made me laugh. This one, he takes out into the village, like parading a new dog,...

Watermelon casks

We were working our way through a watermelon even as I came across this quotation.  Never thought of them as rolling casks.  A little heavy to carry of course, but if you only have get them as far as your boat, and can then rest them there until you reach your picnic...

Benign in his bowels

Don't worry, this is just a metaphor for people who are cloyingly, invasively kind and try to absorb you into their world.  This amazing tirade, which takes up half a page, firmly rejects those who are overly friendly and solicitous, with a touch of condescension in...

Don’t try this trick at home

What a joy to read this sentence; there is no limit to the detail and originality of Thoreau's observations. 'A turtle walking is as if a man were to try to walk by sticking his legs and arms merely out of the windows.'  27 May 1853   Source: Henry David Thoreau,...

As dumb as putty

Good we now have another way to tell someone they're dumb - please feel free to revive this fine phrasing next time you need to point out stupidity (your own is also acceptable). But how many inventive phrases get lost because there isn't an all-noting, all recording...

Towing a sinking ship with a canoe

A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier ('church' made true by calling it 'true church' - he doesn't...

Not long to wait, then

At last, we learn that an explanation is on the way.  And the day after never isn't far off, now, is it? I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep asking the question. 'The day after never, we shall have an explanation.'  8 November 1857  ...

As much as if I were a cow

Wonderful character this Henry David, he gets excited when he reads of the 'Land of Grass' and then comments on how curious this is.  The image of a cow reading about the Land of Grass is also delightful. You can imagine it calling its travel agent and booking a one...

Death and funerals

Thoreau's tricky relationship with the Church is neatly and humorously summed up here. 'If it were not for death and funerals, I think the institution of the Church would not stand longer.'  15 November 1851   Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861,...

Does it?

This theme has been intriguing me - how far is expectation prophecy?  How far can you create something by expecting it?  Thoreau touches on it a few times.  Elsewhere he mentions that fear can create danger and courage dispel it. And what is a sense of expectancy? ...

Black-frogged livery

Of several unbelievable sojourns Leigh Fermor enjoyed in anciently aristocratic homes dotted across central Europe, this may top the lot.  He seems to have come from a sufficiently elevated stratum of English society to be able to pitch up here and there, after weeks...

Television as Antichrist

Again, one of the articulate, adorable and utterly opinionated characters in which Ruiz Zafón's book abounds.  The doom-laden consequences of television didn't quite pan out as disastrously, but the elaborate and colourful damnation of the poor machine is worthwhile...

We exist while we are remembered

This theme captivates me and I have other quotations on the idea that we live for as long as someone remembers us.  The same applies to music, books, places, languages; they die when nobody remembers them. 'He used to say that we exist as long as somebody remembers...

Presents are for those who give

A generous dismissal of a recipient's need to feel worthy of a gift.  Ruiz Zafón's book is full of generous characters and the presents and kindnesses they give. So, use this phrase the next time someone appears overwhelmed by your generosity, it might make them laugh...

The pitfalls of childhood

What a sad commentary on the wounds we inflict on children before they are equipped to comprehend what has happened and perhaps fend off its worst effects. 'One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it.  By the time the...

Forest-haunting Lombards

This is part of a paean to the magic of the forest and the hold it has on our imaginations.  But beware the forest-haunting Lombards, who sound like something from the night side of the fairy tale.   'A kind of spell haunts wooded slopes like these: it drives the...

Green-leaf invocations

Surely a practice worth borrowing or reviving?  Leigh Fermor describes a woman beginning each verse of her song with such an invocation, a kind of homage to the leaves and the trees. 'She sang a doina to herself as she moved about the yard, each verse beginning "Foaie...

The first and last refuge

On World Music Day, something to ponder alongside the joy of music, whether making or hearing it. 'Music is the first and last refuge of dialogue between people.  Suppress that and the only option is war.'   Source: Richard Morrison, quoted in The Times, 16 Sep...

The key to the core

Life and Fate is for me one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, chronicling unflinchingly the horrors it inflicted, and written by a journalist who reported from the front line of Stalingrad, who was at the liberation of Treblinka and who lost his own mother...

On the practice of life

Alice Herz-Sommer was a pianist also believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor, living to 110.  She combined an astonishing resilience and a passion for music, and the discipline of the piano she applies adroitly to the business of life. 'The artist’s job is never...

On hearing Beethoven for the first time

Carson McCullers' heroine, the boyish, quirky, imaginative Mick, comes from a rough and tumble poor background. Her only exposure to classical music is to squat outside the houses of rich people so she can listen to broadcasts coming through the open window.  This is...

Anachronisms past and future

Perhaps one day the telephone, the wristwatch and haste will seem old-fashioned anachronisms, whereas here, in a library created before the 20th century, they seem futuristic. We may find other ways to talk or communicate than the telephone, other ways to tell the...

Dead languages or dormant minds?

There are some marvelous characters in The Shadow of the Wind, several of them highly opinionated and articulate orators, who express uncompromising views in lapidary language. I liked this round dismissal of languages being dead, the failure being instead our dormant...

On keeping secrets

An intriguing definition of what makes a secret worth keeping - not the secret itself, but those from whom it must be kept. This gripping book-loving adventure in Barcelona is built on generations of secrets slowly coming to light, releasing people from repeating...

Riding bicycles and darning socks

An irreverent assessment of anarchists, though having never knowingly met one, I can't speak for its accuracy.  Maybe historically there was something to it, but nobody darns anything nowadays, so it's clearly an anachronism. 'Anarchists - those people who rode...

On thinking things through

Of course, there's a lot to be said for thinking things through, but sometimes 'plunging-off' forms of thought have great value.  For one thing, they can get you started on a journey, whereas if you thought it all through you might never begin. A few times I've...

The sea wants to be visited

A memorable Gaelic proverb, 'dh'iarr am muir a thadhal', given that the sea is sometimes welcoming and at other times rebuffing.   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p. 46 Photo credit: samsommer at...

Of time and place

Time occupies my mind spaciously, and yet I'd never thought of it like this.  Is it true?  Think about your past, and whether you can divorce the recollection of time from the place where you experienced it. 'You can't remember time, only the places in which time...

Eagles colour the country they inhabit

The opening of this quotation had me asking how we 'colour the country we inhabit'?  I also like the following description of this great bird being bothered by small fry, or fly, as an old dog is bothered by gnats. 'Eagles colour the country they inhabit, but it is a...

Don’t stand in my way

I love these passing human vignettes which an author could easily edit out for not being central to the story, though they provide much of its texture and richness.  Sometimes a few lines mentioning or quoting an individual become the only written record of them...

Heard it on the radio

This sweeping and damning judgement of England, found entirely wanting, is contrasted with the simplicity of the source, the radio.   'Where do you stay?' she said. 'Coit do'n bein sibh?', 'Where do you belong to?' 'In England.' 'Where there is no God,' she said,...

Appetite for the absolute

Perhaps the enduring attraction to island life isn't just to get away from the rest of it, or to enjoy a dreamed of climate and lush fruit, but also a sense - real or imagined - of whittling down to essentials, as desert islanders whittle driftwood. 'Islands feed an...

Alone nothing, together everything

When I searched 'together' to find an image for this simple, striking quotation, I was struck by how many photos of couples it yielded.  One of the great togethernesses, of course, but far from being the only one. 'Alone nothing, together everything: that is one of...

Of tea and stars

A charming juxtaposition of homeliness and magnificence - people drinking tea but noticing a sky sprinkled with stars. 'I found them at Tea.  There were a thousand stars in the Sky.'  Thursday 12 November 1801.   Source: Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and...

The moon shone upon the water below

I liked this expansive moon-scape and the detail of Wordworth keeping his curtains open to see it. 'The moon shone upon the water below Silver-how, & above it hung, combining with Silver how on one side, a Bowl-shaped moon the curve downwards – the white fields,...

The cow looked at me looking at the cow

Having done this a number of times, I smiled when I read Dorothy's dilemma in passing the cow.  They have an unnerving way of staring you out, which may be nothing more than the vaguest bovine curiosity.  I have usually ended up doing a great meander to avoid them. ...

Butterflies of all colours

Dorothy Wordsworth's eye for details, and her care in noting them, are a wonder, allowing her to converse with people born centuries after her.  Feeling this easy affinity, I have to wonder if anything we say or write or think will resonate with people 200 years from...

The hugeness of the sea

Being half in love and half terrified of the sea, I also have to suppress the thought of its vastness around and beneath.  If I think about it, I feel dizzy and fearful. 'I have to suppress that awareness of all that room beneath me.  … Do not consider the hugeness of...

An island is loyal

Having a poetic love of the sea and a practical fear of it, the presence and faithfulness of land resonates.  Even when I have loved being at sea, on calm bright days, I always feel a primal relief when I touch 'solid' ground. 'An island is loyal in a way that a boat...

Do men drown in regret?

Do not drown and do not regret. Just jettison, while you can, 'the stupidities and meannesses, self-delusions and deceits', and sail lighter. 'Do men drown regretting what they have done with their lives, all the stupidities and meannesses, the self-delusions and...

Plus ça change…

Although this was written in the context of distant history, our TV screens are awash with images of men being driven to boats in which they drown. By poor soils, poor governance, poor luck. This is a grimmer image than earlier quotations from Nicolson's Sea Room in...

It would have felt good

A persistent question when I read or think about the past, is 'how did they feel?'   What was the tint and texture of how people experienced their lives?  For obvious reasons historians tend not to pronounce too much on the perception of the world of people who mostly...

Moments of ecstatic ease

Nicolson challenges our perceptions of people in the past, what they felt and what motivated them to embark on often quite risky ventures.  I like the idea conveyed here of people taking a chance, of stepping into a moment of 'ecstatic ease' and viewing it as an...

The tide running with you and the sun out

How many times I've read about exploration, about getting in a boat or a ship and chancing it, and yet it seemed a remote thing done by remote people.  Thank you Adam for conjuring the motivating currents driving people to embark upon 'a potentially alarming sea'. And...

A sense of happiness in the light of spring

What a beautiful corrective lens for the 'nasty, short and brutish' view of distant human lives. I did not realise the extent to which I imagine the past as a place full of catastrophe and horror until I read this. What if instead, or perhaps 'as well', it was 'a...

Maitreya the Laughing Buddha, my master!

布袋和尚 To celebrate World Laughter Day on 2 May, let me share this life-and-laughter embracing quotation from the classical Chinese Expanded Treasure of Laughter, by Feng Menglong (1574-1646).  The beautiful calligraphy in the original Chinese was done by He Yubin, a...

Laughter, the nicest and most exciting subject

This endearing quotation is from the preface to the 16th century Treatise on Laughter (Le traité du ris) by Laurent Joubert.  Although he's referring to the study of laughter, it applies to any subject you are passionate about, in which you think that surely you shall...

A certain imperious force of its own

There are many comments on the role of humour and laughter in influencing serious issues.  Here the first century Roman writer Quintilian ackowledges that it can 'turn the scale in matters of great importance'. 'Now, though laughter may be regarded as a trivial...

The mission of those who love mankind

This great humanistic cry was for me the most striking thing about Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.  Although he captures it in a religious context whereby the 'Antichrist can be born from piety itself', the lesson is broader.  Where anyone is consumed by ideology they...

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