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Commonplace Book 1

Doing what you wanted to do was the only training, and the only preparation, needed for doing more of what you wanted to do.

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)

Laws must hold their tongues in the face of arms, and tribunals fall to the ground with the peace they can no longer enforce.


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.


I can’t fall in love with a man who won’t trust me no matter what I do.

Lorelei Lee, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos (1925)

We know you all have received many precious gifts this holiday season. But however precious your gift may be to you, it may not block the aisle.

People Express, airport public address system announcement

The Rambam said: anyone who accepts all the midrashim literally is a fool; anyone who denies them all is a fool.


The sluggard burieth his hand in the dish, and will not so much as bring it back to his mouth.

Proverbs 19:24

Mysteries are long and complicated. But facts are always plain and to the point.

Leslie Charteris, “The National Debt,” in Alias the Saint (1931)

VISIT DACHAU – the 1200-year-old artists’ centre with its castle and surrounding park offering a splendid view over the country.

Tourist poster (1984)

Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no difference – we should all be treated with appropriate respect.

2010 (film, 1984)

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (film, 1984)

When choosing between two evils, I always like the one I’ve never tried before.

Mae West

While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul, without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.

General William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army)

Pleasure is the removal of tension.

Sigmund Freud

Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die, and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.

Theodore Roosevelt

This is what I have to say about Bach’s life work: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your mouth shut.

Albert Einstein (except for choristers of course)

It’s insulting to the reader for [the] writer to suppose that the reader wants to hear every word that pops into [his] head.

Carolyn Chute
New York Times, January 30, 1985

Mathematics is all well and good, but sometimes nature just leads you around by the nose.

Albert Einstein

Where others have their branches, we have our roots.

Independent Bankers Association (advertising slogan)

Technology and the machine resurrected San Francisco while Pompeii still slept in her ashes.

Silas Bent (1930)

Communism is a just way of sharing misery; capitalism is an unjust way of sharing abundance.

source unknown

New York: the city that never sleeps, and looks like hell in the morning.

David Letterman

The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly (1984)

I feel so miserable without you, it’s almost like having you here.

Stephen Bishop

There is only one success, he said to himself – to be able to spend you life in your own way, and not to give others absurd maddening claims upon it.

Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins (1927)

Justice in my life, perfection in my art: this is what I strive for.

Pablo Casals

Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.

Gustave Flaubert (from a letter)

Go to any day of any year since the Dodgers and Giants left New York in 1957 and you find that somebody was doing something which eventually led to the Mets.

Jimmy Breslin, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game (1963)

He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for his work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized.

Pauline Kael

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the reflection of character?

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (1884) in Partial Portraits (1888)

O.K., one more time, anyone want to be prime minister?

Account by Nguyen Cao Ky of the meeting which chose him for the office (from PBS documentary)

When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can’t get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can. And the good old family reunion, with a picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium.

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)

The primary object of a student of literature is to be delighted. His duty is to enjoy himself; his efforts should be directed to developing his faculty of appreciation.

David Cecil, The Fine Art of Reading (1957)

Come friendly bombs and drop on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now …

John Betjeman, “Slough” (1937)

There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.

Edith Wharton

Private credit is wealth; public honour is security. The feather that adorns the royal bird supports his flight; strip him of his plumage and you pin him to the earth.

Junius (quoted in Frederick Marshall, Curiosities of Ceremonials [1880])

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

John Muir

First you keep the people interested, then you feed them the politics.

Leni Riefenstahl

There are some curious subjects which have become old-fashioned, which have drifted, by degrees, so far outside of the necessities of ordinary educations and occupations, that most of us grown up and live and die without a faint perception that they exist at all, and with the incompletest notion of their details. If accident should bring any of them under our observation, we look at them with more or less indifference, according to our particular proclivities; but, as we get on very well without them, as they have nothing to do with money-making, or athletic sports, or Ritualism, or novels, or last night’s ball, or the state of crops, or the few remaining topics which now possess the privilege of interesting one or other of our social strata, we never think of going out of our way to make an exploration of them. And yet, however superannuated they may be, they are seldom altogether stupid: they all contain some sort of teaching; they may even occasionally be enlivening; and each of them has exercised the earnest thoughts of earnest men; each of them fills many dusky Latin folios, that were printed two hundred years ago, at Mayence or Amsterdam; each of them has had enthusiastic advocates in its time. Heraldry, astrology, the art of poisoning, hawking, and internationals law, are examples of this class of subjects.

Frederick Marshall, Curiosities of Ceremonials (1880) (opening paragraph)

In the eyes of God, we’re all guilty.

Rabbi Pearlstein, as quoted by Woody Allen in Broadway Danny Rose (1984).

Protect the Czar from hypocrites. Sustain his timid spirit in his loneliness.

Rasputin’s prayer (from the film Nicholas & Alexandra (1971))

Out of the earth and into the light.

Frank Lloyd Wright

When we talk of an unspoiled landscape, we do not mean a landscape without buildings; we mean a landscape without modernist buildings.

Quinlan Terry (English architect)

A spire or cupola expresses the importance of an internal space which has public importance.

Leon Krier

The best propaganda is the naked event.

William James (?)

A man’s office is his castle.

Clifford Odets, Rocket to the Moon (1938)

Possibly … ninety percent of the population of Rome in AD 100 were non-Italians of slave origin. The Romans of the principate were a new, cosmopolitan race, different in ethnic composition from the Italians who had fought for the empire in the earlier centuries of the Republic.

Michael Grant, The World of Rome (1969)

You shouldn’t say it is not good. You should say you don’t like it; and then, you know, you’re perfectly safe.

James MacNeill Whistler (quoted in D.C. Seitz, Whistler Stories (1911)).

The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (1884) in Partial Portraits (1888)

I don’t know if You exist.

But if You do, You’ve got me pissed!

from Parting Glances (film, 1986)

Take things always by their smooth handle.


… Hemingway’s famous style – whose austerity and precision once implied a moral outlook, a way of looking at the postwar world – …

Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, May 21, 1986

Pink is the navy blue of India.

Diana Vreeland

Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me.
Tax that fella behind the tree.


In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded on four essential freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want …. The fourth is freedom from fear ….

Franklin D. Roosevelt (address to Congress, January 6, 1941)

Laws are just opinions that have triumphed.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Right is the majority opinion of that nation that can lick all others.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

If I’d known the Italians were like that, I’d never have unified them.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (on the cession of Nice, 1860)

Knowledge is required to prepare a work of scholarship, but only ignorance gives the courage to publish it.

E. J. Bickerman, preface to Chronology of the Ancient World (1968)

A fact is historical when it has to be defined not only in space but also in time.

Ibid. (from introduction)

To enjoy power, [a leader] has to recognize that mistakes are inevitable and be able to live with them, hoping that he will make his mistakes on smaller things rather than on bigger things. Only if both elements are present – only if he enjoys power and is not afraid to make mistakes – will he make the bold moves that great leadership requires.

Richard Nixon, Leaders (1982)

Those who seek happiness will not acquire power and would not use it well if they did acquire it.


The qualities required for leadership are not necessarily those we would want our children to emulate – unless we wanted them to be leaders.


What lifts great leaders above the second-raters is that they are more forceful, more resourceful, and have a shrewdness of judgment that spares them the fatal error and enables them to identify the fleeting opportunity.


Act as men of thought; think as men of action.

Henri Bergson, quoted in ibid.

Once in a while, for [Lincoln], the sky failed to touch the horizon and he saw moving shapes, off beyond.

Bruce Catton, quoted in ibid.

There was nothing fake about the hearty, laughing good humor, the optimistic faith (he knew everything would come out right in the end!), the indomitable courage, the incessant, stupendous joie de vivre which he exuded and which others, needful of it, soaked up as parched earth does water.

Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New Deal Years (1986)

The greatest enemy to me has always been indifference. I have written by now some 30 books and really every single book has as its object to fight indifference.

Eli Wiesel, October 14, 1986

Don’t panic. But if you do panic, be the first one.

Old business saying

Adornment – decoration – is the expression of the beautiful as applied to the useful.

Benn Pittman, A Plea for American Decorative Art (1895)

You must classify the values. If you begin with the middle tone and work up from it toward the darks – so that you deal last with your lightest lights and darkest darks – you avoid false accents. That’s what Carolus taught me.

John Singer Sargent

To the extent that your position has any merit it has been fully considered and rejected.

Dean Rusk, replying to J. K. Galbraith’s cable on China’s admission to the United Nations. From Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal (1969)

Just when you least expect it, the unexpected always happens.

Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw (1969)

You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world – it isn’t rational.


Justice without mercy is tyranny. Mercy without justice is weakness. Justice without love is pure socialism. And love without justice is baloney.

Jaime, Cardinal Sin, November 1986

Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash – use it.

Ann Landers

The clock soon runs out when you’re on this earth, so it’s sort of foolish, while you’re alive, not to live.

Malcolm Forbes, explaining why he indulges his taste for balloons and motorcycles.

[Wealth in camels] is impossible to hoard. Sons may inherit their father’s camels, but if they lack the vigor that built up the herds they will soon forfeit them. In the riding environment of Arabia a hundred years ago, the idle and cowardly lost their wealth, the brave and energetic prospered. There was no mechanism by which unearned privilege could be maintained.

Robert Lacey, The Kingdom (1982)

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.

Mae West

Do not compete with the merchants, and they will not compete with you.

King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Sa’ud (principle of statecraft)

Cancer: after the colon, the com[m]a; after the coma, the full stop.

Macabre joke from the Indian Sunday Observer

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following text:

Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj and self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

Mahatma Gandhi

On this spot Ambassador Kenneth B. Keating in an act of compassion and devotion each morning from July 1969 to August 1972 fed his waterfowl, began his day, and thereby enriched our lives.

Plaque erected by the staff of the American Embassy in New Delhi, July 17, 1972.

European civilization [in 1866] was still dominated by dynasts. It was not yet sufficiently advanced to allow one state to strike at another without any warning at all: it was to take more than half a century and a major holocaust to liberate the peoples, so that men of the people could take over from the hereditary monarchs and make war on national lines.

Edward Crankshaw, The Fall of the House of Habsburg (1961)

To the suggestion that Franz Josef on his diamond jubilee in 1908 might amend the succession law to include Franz Ferdinand’s children, Franz Ferdinand said: ‘The Habsburg Crown is a crown of thorns, and nobody who is not born to it shall aspire to it.’”


The kingdom [Austria] still stands, a mighty ruin, continuing from one day to the next, but doomed finally to fall. For centuries it was endured, and so long as the people allowed themselves to be led blindly, it was good; but now its task is at an end, all men are free, and the next storm will sweep away this ruin.

Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, at age 15, in December 1873, quoted in ibid.

I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.

Irvin S. Cobb

He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others.

Samuel Johnson

I wish to declare with all earnestness that I do not want any religious ceremonies performed for me after my death. I do not believe in any such ceremonies and to submit to the, even as a matter of form, would be hypocrisy and an attempt to delude ourselves and others.

Will of Jawaharlal Nehru, June 21, 1954

Irrigators guide water; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters bend wood; wise men mould themselves.


The church which is married to the Spirit of the Age will be a widow in the next.

Dean Inge

A portrait is a picture in which there is something just a little wrong about the mouth.

John Singer Sargent

Witches. Harlots. Talking asses. Asses talking. Young gentlemen caught by the hair. Savage tricks. Priests’ tales.

Florence Nightingale, in a latter to Benjamin Jowett (1872-3), summarizing the Biblical books of Samuel and Kings

There aren’t any rules, and the sooner you learn that, the sooner you have to rely on your own innate taste or choice, or feel of color. What about color? You can’t make rules for color, and you have to pick a color whether you want to or not.

Philip Johnson, interviewed in the Boston Globe, February 15, 1987

On ethical issues, the educated man seeks only as much certitude as is available.


I favor the revival of all the Victorian values except hypocrisy.

Margaret Thatcher

It has pleased God to leave some things unclear.

James Gustavson (University of Chicago theology professor)

Not to decide is to decide not to.


A lot of people say, “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public,” but my laundry’s been cleaned by the Lord.

Tammy Faye Bakker

Tools, forethought and tradition made the history of man’s advance.

C. S. Forester, The Sky and the Forest (1948)

What will Ronald Reagan have for a foreign policy when he runs out of marines?

Gary Hart, at time of Beirut Massacre (1982)

Even a Christian today would tend to associate a harvest festival with the recurring cycle of the seasons. But the children of Israel associated it with a unique event. It did not bind them to nature. It reminded them of their history.

Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of History (1981) (commenting on Deuteronomy 26:5-10, instituting Succoth)

Rather than condemn myself for lack of courage, I honored fear as a guide.

Ann Sayre Wiseman, Dreams and Symbolic Meaning

I probably would have done the same things differently that the President would have done differently.

Vice President George H. W. Bush, explaining how he would have handled Iran/Contra differently from Reagan, May 26, 1987

We all get what we deserve, whether we deserve it or not.

Molly Dodd’s mother, June 4, 1987

An Indestructible Union of Indestructible States.

Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869)

He hated the darkness of death even more than the bitterness of life.

Peter Ustinov, speaking of Beethoven

A princely marriage is a brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such it rivets mankind.

Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867)

There is an argument for no [royal] court, but not for a measly court.

Walter Bagehot (from ibid.?)

Eat more lamb – 20,000 coyotes can’t be wrong.

Bumper sticker

You can’t brush your teeth with Wagner.

Pierre Boulez

Early to bed;
Early to rise;
Work like hell
And organize.

Old political saw

I always say, when in doubt, take action.

George Babbitt, in Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (1926)

I write down what I consider to be true, for those things that the poets tell us are in my own opinion full of contradictions at worthy to be laughed at.

Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 490 bce), first sentence of the Genealogiaei

Q. Do you have any advice for young comedians, Mr. Borge?
A. Be funny.

Victor Borge

Sometimes we must rise above principle.

Jess Unruh

Conducting is the transmission of a musical impulse through gesture.

George Mestre

The fact that I’m telling him what to do doesn’t mean I’m chairman.

overheard at OMSA banquet

Luck is opportunity meeting readiness.

Margaret Thatcher

The principal factors which influenced my life are (1) movement tactics; (2) constitutional means; (3) democratic procedures; (4) respect for human personality; (5) a belief that all people are one.

Bayard Rustin

There was a young man who said, “Damn!
It certainly seems that I am
a creature that moves
in determinate grooves.
I’m not even a bus – I’m a tram.”


There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.

G. K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Heraldry,” in The Defendant (1901)

Reporter: Will white Southerners benefit from Super Tuesday?

Jesse Jackson: Yes. It will teach them to count.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.

William O. Douglas (1976, from a letter)

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, greed is good. Greed works, greed is right. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all its forms, greed for life, money, love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind – and greed, mark my words – will save not only Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the United States of America.

Ivan Boesky, commencement speech (1987?)

A painter paints his pictures; a photographer perceives his.

Aaron Siskind

…[d]ated and decadent forms bear no relation to the original style of heraldry and are contrary to modern taste; they should never be repeated. The pristine sources of heraldic art may be turned to for a style in keeping with the timeless function of heraldry.

Archbishop Bruno Heim, Heraldry in the Catholic Church

The difference between but and therefore is a cultural value.

Jesse Jackson (1987)

Credere! Obbedire! Combattere! Il Duce Ha Sempre Razione!

Italian Fascist slogan (Believe! Obey! Fight! The Leader is always right!)

While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fade;
And when Rome falls – the World!

Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818)

Well, if we blow ourselves up, there’s plenty more where we came from.

Doris Lessing’s father