Good Thoughts: 45 Years With Bartlett’s ‘Familiar Quotations’

July 6, 2020 Updated: July 6, 2020

In his memoir “My Early Life,” Winston Churchill wrote: “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s ‘Familiar Quotations’ is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.”

Like Churchill, I too am a longtime fan of quotations. Though I have packed most of my books in anticipation of a move this summer, two books of quotations sit close at hand: “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” and John Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations,” given to me as a Christmas gift by my mother in 1975, a detail I know only because Mom recorded the date and her love for me on the volume’s first page.

Occasionally, I open these books at random, read a few entries, and receive, as Churchill wrote, “good thoughts.” 

A Monument Eroded

A note here: I own a 14th edition, published in 1968, of “Familiar Quotations.” Editors have since radically changed this work, adding quotes from the Cookie Monster from “Sesame Street,” “Star Trek,” and The Doors, and removing many former contributors.  Justin Kaplan, editor of the 16th edition, once remarked, “I don’t happen to like books of great thoughts at all.”

In his preface to the 18th edition, editor Geoffrey O’Brien writes of this remodeled version of Bartlett’s, “A work that was once dominated by scripture, classical literature, and poetry has opened itself to the multiple voices of mass journalism, recording, movies, radio and television broadcasting, and now the Internet.” 

Once again, our culture has foregone the classical and embraced the ephemeral. For those readers who prefer a Bartlett’s more closely resembling the one owned by Churchill, you may obtain a copy of the 14th edition for under $10 from AbeBooks.com.

“The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations”—mine is the 5th edition, published in 1999—is also excellent and available for purchase online.

john bartlett
John Bartlett (1820–1905), an American writer and publisher best-known for Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.” (Public domain)

An Experiment

To test Churchill’s proposition that such quotations make us “anxious to read the authors and look for more,” I opened my Bartlett’s at random to page 796, where I found excerpts from William James, Prince Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin, Sidney Lanier, and John Alexander Joyce. James and Lanier were familiar to me—I long ago read James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and bits of Lanier’s verse—and Kropotkin I recognized only by his reputation as an anarchist and a revolutionary, but I had never heard of John Alexander Joyce. Two lines of a poem were his only claim to fame:

“I shall love you in December
With the love I gave in May!”

Those two lines led me to Google John Alexander Joyce, where I found the complete poem, “Question and Answer,” but also became entangled in a literary mess. Joyce had likely stolen Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” and declared himself the author, Jimmy Walker, later mayor of New York, used Joyce’s lines in a song for a musical, and Joyce himself comes across as a bit of a nut, having engraved on his burial monument two of the lines he had pilfered from “Solitude.”

I’m not anxious to read more of Joyce, but the 20 minutes I spent bouncing around online were certainly entertaining. 

Laughter

Many quotations from Bartlett’s offer humor, intended or not. One of my favorite examples of intentional humor is this entry by American humorist and sportswriter Ring Lardner, a quote from “The Young Immigrants,” which Lardner wrote in the vernacular: “‘Are you lost, daddy?’ I arsked tenderly. ‘Shut up,’ he explained.” Then there’s the unintentional humor of Joachim Von Ribbentrop, foreign minister of Nazi Germany, on the maniac who began a war in Europe, invaded Russia, and destroyed Germany: “The Fuhrer is always right.” 

How’d that work out for you, Joachim?

Support and Strength

Many of us also turn to quotations for inspiration or help. We look for that succinct thought, that compressed idea, which we can carry in our hearts and minds like a talisman available at a moment’s notice to bring us hope and courage.

Sometimes, we forget the consolation we can find in the words of others, the strength we can take from them. Instead, we hear that “actions speak louder than words,” that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” or that “words are cheap.” 

But I am a writer and a man with few other resources, and sometimes, words are all I have. I look to the words and sentences of other writers to help me make it through another day, another brush with an unpleasant person, another train wreck in my finances.

The words of others have often comforted me in times of distress—who couldn’t find solace in the medieval Levant adage, “This too shall pass”?

An Example

Nearly four years ago, my life took a disastrous turn, a catastrophe that I myself had helped precipitate. For months, darkness came not only at dusk, but at dawn, when I would waken, dull with guilt and remorse, and force myself to slog through another long, bleak day.

Finally, one afternoon, I snatched up a red marker and on the glass exterior door of my basement apartment wrote “Invictus,” which is Latin for “Unconquered” and the title of a poem by William Ernest Henley. “Invictus” remained graven on the glass for months, fading but still legible, reminding me several times a day to keep up the fight, to push ahead, to better myself, and to find the right path again.

Better Late Than Never

One minor regret of my life is that I haven’t kept a notebook of favorite passages or adages from books I’ve read. By keeping such a record, not only would I have built a treasure house of the thoughts and opinions of writers I admire, but I would also own a sort of spiritual diary composed of quotations important to me at certain times during my life.

What might I have recorded when my children were born? What quotations would have entered that daybook in the weeks and months following my wife’s death? What words might have found their way to those pages during the graduations and weddings of my children, and Christmases spent with my grandchildren?

When I mentioned this regret to a friend, he offered this simple advice, “So, start now.”

And so I did. On my desk is an empty composition book, one of those checkered notebooks used by students, on the front of which I have written “Quotes & Notes.” On the first page, I had entered the date—May 10, 2020, Mother’s Day—and beneath it a single reminder: “Coronavirus Lockdown Week 6: A dark and lonely time.” Below that came my first entry: 

“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 
Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations.”

Good to remember, and it made me feel better about my “dark and lonely time.” 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.