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...

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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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...

On life and writing: the fast and the slow of it

I was charmed by Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, wishing I could reverse time's arrow to accompany her on a walk to pick up the post.  She writes with dew-fresh realism and warmth and I was amazed at how captivating I found the minutiae of her life. The last few years,...

Waiting for the post

Dorothy Wordsworth's journals were written in the closing years of the 18th century and the opening years of the 19th, when the postal system had not evolved to last-mile delivery.  Her diary repeatedly mentions walking to pick up the post.  And 'walking' means...

The impatient shout of a thrush

A few years ago I noted Keats' references to and delight in a thrush in his garden, and so found a kindred joy in Dorothy's writing about the singing thrush, which she later describes as 'our own Thrush', mentioning its 'impatient shout'. 'The thrush is singing. There...

A poet’s sister or a sister poet?

In Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, you sense the extent to which she supported her brother's writing. Some things she records become material for his poems. She also reads aloud to him, including his own compositions, and copies out his poems. But beyond this, she has...

The proper form of fairy goblets

Acorns as fairy goblets, of course.  But what is this 'moss cup' that Dorothy Wordsworth considers a better goblet for a fairy?  The world wide web yields only images of porcelain cups with moss in them, or moss shaped in a cup and saucer form, but nothing that would...

Enchanting woods and beautiful trees

The detail, delicacy and richness of Dorothy Wordsworth's descriptions of nature are worthy of Thoreau (whose journal I am now reading and will review in time for the 200th anniversary of his birth). 'There the bright moss was bare at the roots of the trees, and the...

Trickster to the gods

Mercurial, I knew about, and the tricksterishness.  But I hadn’t encompassed Mercury’s full spectrum – the god of culture, but also the ‘humanizing force’. I will light a candle to any humanizing force.  And as an 'irrepressible trickster and joker', he probably...

Foolishness as divine state

This quotation was forwarded to me by the editor of Fools Are Everywhere as we were finalizing the text for publication. It seemed a divine underlining of the book's key message: that the fool fulfils a universal role, as witnessed by his - and occasionally her -...

What is more praiseworthy than truth?

A question that resonates strongly today as we become accustomed to new tropes such as 'alternative facts'.  Erasmus' masterpiece, first published in 1515, still has an astonishing freshness and relevance. 'And let me tell you, fools have another gift which is not to...

If the chief is no good…

Written in the 1930s, this still resonates.  It's also an unusual example of a fool or clown openly stating that the chief is no good, inciting the elders to get together and choose a new one. It was more usual for the fool to try to influence 'the chief' than...

On being scalped

Hodgson Burnett is best known for The Secret Garden, but she also wrote the well-known though misunderstood Little Lord Fauntleroy. Fauntleroy has had a bad press, and his name can be used to refer to a foppish, prissy, spoiled child with a lace collar.  In fact, he's...

Learning to be an earl

The young boy is being groomed to earldom, which includes understanding what being an earl actually means.  Here he is accompanied by the lawyer who has brought him from America to live with his grandfather, whose vast estate he will inherit.  The boy is used to...

A wooden sword

Little Lord Fauntleroy is born knowing how to treat people, and in treating them equally regardless of status, and always with kindness and sympathy, he is more of a natural aristocratic than his VIP grandad. ‘I’m obliged to him because he once made me a sword out of...

Getting to know your grandfather

The crotchety old man is softened and soothed by his grandson, and responds to his many direct questions with surprising patience.  Eventually he allows the small child to make decisions he would never have made himself: letting impoverished tenants with small...

water is…

One bitingly cold morning I was crossing a square in central Liverpool, and noticed some words on the ground.  I followed them, and discovered a fluid, limpid elegy to water and its relationship to a coastal city, circumnavigating the square.  I love when words are...

Beginnings

According to Adam Nicolson, some of the earliest poems were found in Sumer in cuneiform, dating from nearly two thousand years before Homer's epics were committed to papyrus, around 2600 BC.  Only fragments remain.  I wonder if anyone has thought of posting those...

Roiling poetry

Written by a poet, this suggests that poems aren't written, but rather roil and form of their own volition. Having had moments of sensing that lines were being written not by but through me, I liked this elemental action of a poem in the making. 'Something nameless...

There is no method but yourself

Wisely or no, this has pretty much been my haphazard method of reading poetry since I left formal study. With occasional blinding insight provided by some of the best writers on poetry, which is to say, its best readers. 'There is no method but yourself, once you have...

The modesty of genius

Humility comes through Keats' letters, though he was also quietly conscious of having something the future would acclaim, even when subjected to scathing reviews (who remembers the reviewers now?). 'I am three and twenty with little knowledge and middling intellect....

Beautiful thoughts

When Laurie Lee was starting out in life, and was far from being yet an 'author', he had some poems published.  This was the appreciative reaction of his landlord. ‘Is it really you?’ he asked fastidiously.  ‘I wasn’t aware you had such beautiful thoughts.’  ...

A few words of good advice

A cheerily rhyming analysis of the difference between 'poetry' and 'verse'.  I may have managed a few verses here and there among a number of ditties, but nothing that has passed this test and so qualifies as poetry. Copyright: Bill Stanton, www.billstanton.co.uk and...

What’s in a word?

This poem was written by a great uncle who shared my grandfather's love of books and became a writer, also earning a degree in English literature in his retirement since there weren't the funds for him to go to university when he was young. I discovered his poems in a...

Golden wine and blessing

Hall's book about living, working and travelling in Romania in the 1930s is warm and engaging, and he meets a number of characters in the general Zorba mould. I wish you golden wine and other blessings. 'So with a bottle of his golden wine and his blessing we walked...

Manners no more

Had to share this one-liner with you, carrying such a sweep of historical perspective and cultural nuance. I hope at least some of you will use it the next time you're confronted with curmudgeonly or uncouth behaviour.  Let me know if you do. 'He checked himself and...

Aquatic Englishmen

It can be fun to see ourselves as others see us. Here Donald Hall's Romanian hosts are baffled by and despair of his apparent attachment to water. “It is no good,” grumbled Nicolaie.  “He is an Englishman.  He loves water. In England it rains all the time.  Even here...

Why vampires exist

You've been wondering, of course, whether vampires exist, and now you know that they do, and you know why. May you be spared their soul-drying proximity. “So long as there are people on earth there will be vampires.” “Why?” “Because there will always be some who dry...

Books hidden, books found

Armenians seemed to be particularly adept at averting bibliocide.  Some cultures, threatened with bibliocide, committed books to memory. The Armenians, apparently successfully committed to memory the whereabouts of hidden books and then transmitted that memory over...

Hoovering up ideas

There's such a zest to this account of the Armenian approach to dealing with invaders: translate everything you can get your hands on, regardless of your relationship with other nations or cultures. As for Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, he should perhaps...

Fuel for the body or mind?

Book burning, or bibliocide, is usually something we associate with ideologues, political or religious, fearful of the free flow of ideas.  Here it is a bibliophile scholar who burns them as the only source of fuel during a wartime winter. Note the way he selects some...

Imagination as nothing and everything

I have this sense of duality, of things being ‘at once nothing and everything’, in many regards, not only that of imagination. The details of our lives, by which I mean the tender, joyous, beloved details, are ‘at once nothing and everything'. Our personal, quiet...

Trauma recollects forward

Harold Bloom refers here to Esther in Dickens’ Bleak House. I’ve been turning over in my mind his statement that ‘trauma recollects forward’, and that being tempted to weep at love and kindness is a sign of life, of not being ‘caught in death in life’. May your cup...

Play more, work better

Of course, playing more with a view to working better isn’t going about it in the right spirit.  But play more, yes, and incidentally you’ll probably work better. You won’t be as stressed, your imagination will limber up, you might even do a bit of laughing, which...

Tell stories, ask questions

David Boyle teases out the limitations of measurement and statistics in capturing the complexities of human happiness and well-being. I like his two healthy antidotes to numbers running riot to the detriment of meaningful human exchange: tell stories and ask difficult...

Seeing your own absurdity

Elizabeth Goudge is, in my view, one of the best children’s writers of all time, and I discovered her as a so-called grown-up. Her writing is full of wisdom wrapped in wit and wryness. Here is a fresh consideration of the value of reading fairy tales – to allow you to...

A box of mysteries

A novel reason for taking fairy tales seriously. Beyond their charm and imagination, they have an added bonus of reminding us that the universe is jam-packed full of things beyond our ken.  Keeps you humble. “And don’t you dare to disparage fairy tales. A fairy tale,...

Company for breakfast

A breakfast meeting that’s a far cry from the croissant and orange juice business versions that have crept into our world.  Somehow we tend to invite people for lunch or dinner, but breakfast has its own charm.  I have some cards and postcards featuring paintings of...

For morning lovers

I love mornings, particularly bright ones, and the magic of getting up early, especially when it’s light at five.  If I miss such a morning, I feel I’ve missed a chance at enchantment.  In winter, I still get a kick out of stealing a march on the day, but am at the...

Was I all right, love?

We watched a documentary about the down to earth English singer Kathleen Ferrier (1912-53) who died of cancer. She was stoical beyond belief and during one of her final opera performances managed to signal to the others on stage that she was unable to move and that...

Hands and feet

Durrell captures the raw effects of hard physical labour on the hands and feet of the peasants he met in Greece in the 1930s.  We sometimes forget the physical hardship of past lives, even among the wealthier classes.  Reading the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth,...

Tyranny and complexity

Years ago I visited a friend in his office and found this quotation tacked to his door (I think it was his door). I stumbled across it in my treasure trove of quotations, and it seems to ring worryingly true at the moment. ‘The essence of tyranny is the denial of...

Complexity into simplicity does go

I can imagine Churchill weighing up the complexities of the European political landscape in the 1930s and drawing some simple conclusions. He was ringing alarm bells about Hitler as early as 1936 (as were some prescient cartoonists). ‘Out of intense complexities,...

Rules and writers

Nikos Kazantzakis, best known as the author of Zorba the Greek, pretty much wipes the floor with literary theorists, quite unjustly in many ways.  But sometimes it may be necessary to break a few rules in quest of creativity. That said, I am ambivalent about this bold...

Time and poets

This summary of where Mandelstam places the poet versus the ‘man of letters’ on the time spectrum intrigues me.  Yes, there are poets who converse with readers waiting in the future: Homer and Keats come to mind.  But there are also poets who write for their own time,...

Rules and readers

Many of us have been in situations where vague ‘conventions’ are cited, the unwritten rules governing this or that realm. Sometimes I have sensed that ‘convention’ was a fig-leaf for ‘convenience’. The purveyors and guardians of such conventions aren’t always able to...

Hand of kindness

This is a wonderful novel with some striking characters.  I liked this little kid crying and eating bread at the same time, and the kindness of the giant man who takes his hand, and the hand feeling like bread to the small boy.  If we held their hands more, there’d be...

Voice of compassion

Fanny Burney, a strong, independent minded writer from the eighteenth century, served for a while at the court as a kind of lady-in-waiting to the queen.  The job, which sounds a doddle, was actually oppressive and stressful since the queen didn’t have any sense of...

A pilgrim’s path

Luiz and I have talked about taking some long walks or bike rides and even doing a stretch of the Compostela walk. But for a real pilgrimage, there can sometimes be a sense of loss when you reach the end, a ‘what now?’ mixed in with relief and joy.  Similarly with...

From one artist to another

You don’t have to agree with this side-swipe to appreciate its pithiness. ‘What a genius, that Picasso,’ he said.  ‘It’s a pity he doesn’t paint.’   Source: Marc Chagall, quoted in Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1966),...

Reading as grand occasion

This is Machiavelli and I like the way he treats reading as a majestic occasion, leaving aside his working clothes and getting rigged up in his brocaded best before diving into four hours of reading.  Clearly, I really need to up my game on the sartorial front,...

Worse than cocaine

If you were traversing the Soviet Union it was better to be caught with a kilo of cocaine than a book. Let alone a book in English. ‘Worst of all are the books.  What a curse to be traveling with a book!  You could be carrying a suitcase of cocaine and keep a book on...

In quest of lost libraries

For me the world of books and libraries has a shadow world of those lost or destroyed.  Surely someone could write a novel about them? Meanwhile it is amazing how much survives, neither lost, burned, soaked nor nibbled by worms.  But I wonder about the ghosts of...

What is reading for?

A wonderful quotation about what reading can do for and to us. Not a question of clocking up facts or notches on a cultural scorecard, but some deeper effect on who we are and how we respond to the world. ‘What does it matter how cultivated and up to date we are, or...

Department of Exceptions

‘All good publishers have a department of exceptions.’ Perhaps any institution worth its salt should have a department of exceptions: schools admissions offices, human resources departments, government ministries. Trouble is, it takes great extra dollops of judgement,...

Why read literature?

‘Why read literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can. It makes us more human.’ I'm all for being more human. By the way, John Sutherland's book is wonderfully clear and unpretentious.   Source: John Sutherland, A Little History of...

In praise of the slow, the deep and the difficult

Reading this, I am trying to figure out how to ‘restore the positive perception of certain almost lost qualities’ that Manguel describes.  That said, I sense that while we are sometimes readily seduced by the ‘vaunted virtues of the quick and easy’, many relish the...

My kind of typewriter

This extraordinary piece of engineering allowing a polyglot to spin between four languages and keyboards.  Manual typewriters, mind, not bits of software. ‘Zarian possesses an extraordinary typewriter which enables him, by simply revolving the bed of type, to write in...

Letters on a clothes line

Picasso seems to have had an ambivalent relationship to letters.  He tortured himself by reading tirades from his ex-wife, and here, suspends letters in full view, like clothes on a line, to reproach himself.  For what?  For whatever they accused him of, or for simply...

Cosmic understatement

On Saturday we visited the permanent exhibition at CERN near Geneva.  Among the exhibits they had some sound-pods, armchairs that enveloped you while you listen to an audio guide available in four languages.  These weren’t necessarily  translations of each other, so...

Understatement – not a bad idea

At the CERN permanent exhibition we saw a display of Tim Berners-Lee’s one-page proposal for an information management system that a few tweaks and iterations later became the World Wide Web.  We liked the low-key handwritten encouragement at the top of the page:...

Understatement – on being Jewish

Imré Kertesz’ novel revolves around a slightly unhinged hero, but given he survived Auschwitz only to end up in another totalitarian sanity-warp, he’s actually rather grounded.   Source: Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Imre Kertész, trans. Tim Wilkinson (New York:...

Understatement – dead or alive?

Jane Austen is a fount of wryness.  Here she is playfully, gently breaking some bad news of the state of some trees to their owner:  ‘I will not say your mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.’   And if you liked these examples of...

A paean to paper

When developing this website, I created the Paper Shaper category to celebrate this wondrous material.  This lengthy praise of paper by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer about sums it up, referring to many of the main touch points, literally and figuratively, of...

Letters better late than never

The war-time life-line of letters is summed up here. Their erratic arrival in a region of Italy where the battle front moved back and forth like a changeable weather front, with allied soldiers passing through under cover, sometimes asking only for a glimpse of a map...

Poetry as plough

Elsewhere Mandelstam connects poetry to recall.  Here it is a time-turning plough, bringing the deepest layers of time to the surface. And, you could add, enriching the present by turning it over with old soil, aerating both. ‘Poetry is the plow that turns up time so...

Poetry as connector

Since good poetry (good writing, for that matter) transcends time, I liked this phrase of Molly Peacock, a Canadian poet, that ‘poetry exists against time’, together with the ‘indiscriminate gusto’ it permits her in traversing poetic landscapes near and far, across...

It’s New Year’s Day – call someone!

This made me laugh on the one hand – a funny image to receive a phone call from a dog – but it also made me think about loneliness, which is always accentuated at times of togetherness, such as New Year.  So, let me wish you a happy new year, and encourage you to pick...

A simple summary of perfection

  Grossman has a simplicity and clarity to his writing and I like his definition of perfection, not as an absence of flaws, but as an expression of the essential. I am also intrigued by the notion that it is ‘always democratic … always generally accessible’....

Roll your own, but don’t swallow them

Dr Gibson, the wry Scottish hero of this best of Gaskell novels, suffers a series of underwhelming apprentices, often to give them a start in life at the request of their parents. Here we have a father about to hand over his son to Dr Gibson’s care, and concerned that...

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