Garner’s Quotations: “A book that will be of use to speech writers, journalists on the lookout for catchy maxims and others seeking shortcuts to apparent erudition.”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf review by Henry Hitchings of the book Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany by Dwight Garner:

Do you have an Everything Bucket? A place, that is, where you record witticisms, recipes, half-digested thoughts, absurd remarks you’ve overheard and luminous fragments of verse. Maybe you use an app such as Evernote or Zim. Maybe you own a little leather-bound jotter that travels with you everywhere. Or perhaps, like me, you have a notepad labeled “Moments of Genius” that’s been sitting on your night stand for years, barely touched.

Writers and politicians have long been keen on hoarding oddments in this way, hoping to make them the accessories of their own eloquence. George Eliot called her collection a blotter, and the poet J.D. McClatchy described his as “a sort of ledger of envies and joys.” John Milton’s shows us his wide reading and political zeal, and Robert Burns’s reveals his mixture of whimsy and ambition. Thomas Jefferson chose to keep separate volumes for his literary gleanings and his legal ones. Woodrow Wilson made a point of transcribing morally charged sentences as a means of guarding against sloth and introspection. . . .

In the introduction to “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany,” Dwight Garner explains that he started a commonplace book in the 1980s, when he was a high-school student. He has diligently maintained it for almost 40 years. Though the emphasis is on “scavenged wisdom from my life as a reader,” it includes lines from songs (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits) and from plays (David Mamet, Tom Stoppard), as well as inventive profanities, tiny parcels of advice, and the more flavorsome morsels of other people’s chatter—whatever “made me sit up in my seat” or “jolted me awake.” The result is “an aide-mémoire, a kind of external hard drive,” and Mr. Garner, now a book critic for the New York Times, here shares a small selection from it. . . .

Rather than lifting readers’ spirits or performing the literary equivalent of taxidermy, he wants to tickle our taste buds. So there’s not a word here from such anthology stalwarts as George Bernard Shaw and Francis Bacon, or from overtly inspirational figures such as Gandhi and Kahlil Gibran. Instead Mr. Garner, bookish but with a liking for the earthy and the ebullient, favors James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch and Norman Mailer, John Updike and Zadie Smith.

We are treated to a lot of aphorisms and clever aperçus, some instantly attractive and others worth chewing over: Toni Morrison’s “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick”; Myla Goldberg’s “Nothing amplifies failure like the hug of a stranger”; Aravind Adiga’s “Revenge is the capitalism of the poor.” There are items that could have been lifted from the more upscale sort of gossip column, such as a detail from the rider provided by the singer Grace Jones, who when touring requests that two dozen oysters be kept on ice: “Grace does her own shucking.”. . .

A few entries surely belong in the “retweets are not endorsements” category: for instance, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s assertion that “women dress alike all over the world: they dress to be annoying to other women” and Auberon Waugh’s claim that “it is impossible to be angry for very long with a man who wears a wig.”

“Garner’s Quotations” is ideal for dipping into. . . .It will be of use to speech writers, journalists on the lookout for catchy maxims and others seeking shortcuts to apparent erudition.

Henry Hitchings is the author, most recently, of “The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters, or Dr. Johnson’s Guide to Life.”

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