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Commonplace Book 4

Mathematics is to physics as masturbation is to sex.


If Hitler had not had charisma, Germany would not now be full of elderly people saying, “I can’t think what came over me.”

Quentin Crisp (1997)

Not to make one technically or professionally proficient, but to instill some sense of the love of learning for its own sake, some capacity to analyze any issue as it comes along, the capacity to think and to express the results of one’s thinking clearly, regardless of what the subject matter might be.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, President of Yale University, in conversation, on the mission of Yale. 

Top Ten Reasons Why Beer Is Better Than Christianity

  1. No one will kill you for not drinking Beer.
  2. Beer doesn’t tell you how to have sex.
  3. Beer has never caused a major war.
  4. They don’t force Beer on minors who can’t think for themselves.
  5. When you have Beer, you don’t knock on people’s doors trying to give it away.
  6. Nobody’s ever been burned at the stake, hanged, or tortured over their brand of Beer.
  7. You don’t have to wait more than 2,000 years for a second Beer.
  8. There are laws saying that Beer labels can’t lie to you.
  9. You can prove you have a Beer.
  10. If you’ve devoted your life to Beer, there are groups to help you.


If you have a city, you need a freeway through the center of the city. It makes sense.

John Barry (1997)

Karma begins with the ignorance of clinging to self. Attempting to maintain a self creates a continual chain of volitional action based on impulse and expressed through body, speech and mind. Our present circumstances are the result of volitional actions in the past; our future circumstances depend on volitional actions in the present.

Ösel Tendzin, Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand (1982)

If you know “Not” and have discipline,
Patience will arise along with exertion.
Then the ultimate “No” is attained,
And you are victorious over the maras of the setting sun.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoché

Write like you talk.

William Carlos Williams

Death is the most decisive moment in human life. It is like a coronation to die in peace with God. I have never seen anyone die desperate or blaspheming. They all die serenely, almost with joy.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

A tippler from Riverside Drive
Had breath you could hardly survive.
He ate a banana,
Read George Santayana,
And farted Chanel No. 5.


Never write when you can phone. Never phone when you can say it face to face. Never say it if you can nod. Never nod if you can wink. Never wink if you can hide it in a smile.

Huey Long

No one’s all bad, but she comes closest.

Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (film, 1947)

The human heart is a factory of idolatry.

John Calvin

If you can’t hit the ball, hit the man; if you can’t hit the man, hit the horse; but for God’s sake do something!

Pakistani polo, as explained to Prince Philip (1997)

Every day I shit many sins.

Meher Baba

Chronology is the spine of history.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Nobody sees anybody truly but [only] through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition – all such distortions within our own egos – condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions in our own egos, the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other.

Tennessee Williams, to Elia Kazan, in 1947, speaking of A Streetcar Named Desire.1

“Which way is south?”

“Son, around here, it’s all south.”

Conversations with my Inner Cracker

However many holy words you read,
However many you speak,
What good will they do you
If you do not act upon them?


A page of history is worth a volume of logic.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Morality is the theory of pre-existing social habits.

Aldous Huxley, Jesting Pilate (1926)

One is all for religion until one visits a really religious country. There, one is all for drains, machinery and the minimum wage. To travel is to discover that everybody is wrong.


History is a process of memory, and all the rest you make up.

Robert O’Hara

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

James 4:14

Tradition is the illusion of permanence

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry (film, 1998)

He was what the world calls penniless, having an income from his father just sufficient to keep him like a gentleman.

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds (1873)

Socialism for the rich; free enterprise for the poor.

Gore Vidal

No matter how golden an age is, there will always be someone who complains that everything looks too yellow.

Randall Jarrell

Any person passing through a room will unknowingly leave something there and take something away.

Émile Locard (criminologist)

Do-it-yourself Easter kit: two pieces of wood, four nails, and a Jew.


The 40s were the 60s of the 19th century.

Jon Carroll (1998)

I always want to know the rules, because there always are rules. People who say there aren’t tend to be hiding their knowledge of the rules for their own advantage.

Norman Rush, Mating (1991)

If baboons learned to talk, their first words would be stiff with moral indignation.

C. P. Snow, Time of Hope (1949)

If someone doesn’t save history, who will?


For me, mankind begins with barons.


The people who are the best off are the people whose advice is not taken, because whatever we do is filled with hazards.

John Kennedy, briefing Congressional leaders on the Cuban missile crisis (October 22, 1962)

Anyone can see a forest fire; skill lies in sniffing the first smoke.

Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (1973)

How far did personalities count? Nothing like as much as one liked to think. Only in those circumstances when the hinge is oiled, but the door may swing or not. If that isn’t the situation, then no personality is going to make more than an ineffectual noise.

P. Snow, The Corridors of Power (1963)

An Israeli is someone who would die for you in battle, but kill you on the road.


Do we not nearly always find in our past imaginings … just those two touchstones of the ideal – a fantastic unlikeness to the real thing, together with a special beauty nowhere else to be found?

Kenneth Grahame, “Ideals” (1922)

A woman can make you happy for about ten minutes a week, and that’s it. The rest of the time, you’re on your own.

Garrison Keillor, Wobegon Boy (1997)

I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.

Dying words of Tolstoy

These are the loveless last days of the world’s last age.

Alcuin of York, c. 800 CE

I tried to sleep, but the noise from the stage was too much.

P. G. Wodehouse, of Venus Observed (a 1950 play in verse by Christopher Fry)

He liked women, but his sense of humor prevented him from falling in love.

Hugh Walpole, The Cathedral (1922)

Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside [the cradle] of Hercules.

Thomas Huxley (1860)

But now that the gods’ indispensable function in human life has been delineated, there is still the residual question of their existence to be faced in all seriousness. Yet perhaps seriousness is the wrong frame of mind in which to approach the being of the gods. Perhaps what is wanted is a certain light-mindedness, a receptivity to Olympian grandeur and Olympian mischief, which is not a suspension of some prior rational disbelief, but a withdrawal from questions of belief in existence that force a yes or no answer, when existence – with its connotation of hard fact on earth and demonstrable necessity in the realm above – seems dissonant with the way of being attributed to Homer’s gods.

Eva Brann, Homeric Moments (2002)

Government by organized money is as dangerous as government by organized mob.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936)

He smote the rock
of the national resources,
and abundant streams
of revenue gushed forth.
He touched the dead corpse
of the public credit, and
it sprung upon its feet.

From statue of Hamilton in front of the Treasury Building in Washington

There is no place for opinions and whims in the government of Islam.

Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Government (1970)

Governing is not an end in itself. It is a means of value as long as its goal is noble. If sought as a goal and if all means are used to attain it, then it degenerates to the level of a crime.


Infidelity begins with a look.

Tom Stoppard

Debussy has balls – he just doesn’t wear them on his sleeve.

Terence McNally, The Lisbon Traviata (play, 1989)

I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than Mayor of Chicago.

James J. Walker

He spread before all a panorama of the events of his times. He was the champion of work and peace before all mankind. He gave to the people a clear understanding of the history of all the ages. He imparted to millions an appreciation and love of the literature, art and religion which have ennobled the world.

Plaque on Fifth Avenue: Arthur Brisbane 1864-1936, American Editor and Patriot

Compared with you, Wagner was a minimalist.

Goebbels, to Hitler (in the 1996 film The Empty Mirror)

It annoys me to die. I should have liked to see what follows.

Jean-Louis Carra (to his executioner, 1793)

Night is for sleeping; day is for resting.

Hotel sign, Victoria, British Columbia

Fear of jail is the beginning of wisdom.

Nigerian folk saying

Who has the petrol has the Empire.

Lord Curzon

My whiskey bottle
Only wants to be empty
Like a good Zen monk.

Haiku by Frank Wortham

Style is a special case of technique.

Philip Glass (composer, explaining what he learned from Nadia Boulanger)

It’s not how do you find your voice, it’s how to get rid of it.

Philip Glass (explaining what he learned from Ravi Shankar)

Anything archetypal is clichéd; every cliché is an archetype. I think clichés have a bad rep. We use archetype as if it were a positive thing and cliché as if it were a negative, but we’re mostly talking about the same phenomenon.

Stephen Merritt

A Libertarian is a Republican who doesn’t believe in God.


Within the German boundaries every Herero, whether found with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, shall be shot.

[signed] The Great General of the Mighty Kaiser, von Trotha (1904)

Well, by the time you’re fifty-four, there’s no eraser left at your pencil’s end. You’re condemned to those choices you made before you knew they were choices. All you can do is pay for the trip you’ve taken.

Eliz Kazan, The Understudy (1975)

To a man with a hammer, a lot of things look like nails.

Mark Twain

Whatever else you may say about me, you will not be able to say you were not commanded.

General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (1889-1952), to his officers

The first quality of an officer is gaiety.

Marshal Hubert Lyautey (1891)

Freedom is participation in power.


It wouldn’t be fair to judge my conversation by the things I say.

Valerie Solanas, Up Your Ass (1965)

All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.

Alfred E. Smith

It was roses, roses, all the way.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
God moves in a mysterious way.
But I go on forever.

Richard Sachs

You think quick, but you don’t think long. Well, that’s what a lawyer is supposed to do for his client, take the long view. The client does something, or wants to do something, is all hot for it, but his lawyer is the guy that asks, “what if…?”

Old lawyer to young one, in Someday the Rabbi Will Leave, by Harry Kemelman (1985)

He was anxious to spend all of his money, so as to be compelled to work all his life long. He actually believed that constant work is useful to Man [à l’homme] and that it extends and preserves his intelligence.

Gustave Courbet, Autobiography (1877)

The Ego’s attachment to power of any kind is linked inextricably to the fear of losing that power, an thus becomes a source of suffering.

Ram Dass, Still Here (2000)

Prolong not the past.
Invite not the future.
Alter not your innate wakefulness.
Don’t fear appearances.
There is nothing more than that.

Tibetan sutra

The striving for wisdom is the second paradise of the world.


If you cannot mould yourself as you would like, how can you expect other people to be entirely to your liking?

Thomas à Kempis

[In Renaissance times people’s] thinking was a muddle of religion and folk-belief and rags of misunderstood classical learning, instead of being what it is today, which I suppose you’d have to call a muddle of materialism and folk-belief and rags of misunderstood scientific learning.

Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels (1981)

An aging romantic is hardly to be distinguished from an aging Tory …


The Portuguese went into Asia in a spirit of determination to succeed, which was stronger than the will of the Asian peoples to resist. Even the Muslim power in the Indian Ocean, which stood to lose so much by the Portuguese success, did not bring to the defense of its own interests the continuous and wholehearted energy displayed by its European rival.

Sir George Sansom, The Western World and Japan (1949)

Relatives are what you have in Miami; family is what you have in New York.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman

Never express yourself more clearly than you think.

Niels Bohr

The Postwar Japanese Constitution was imposed on the reactionaries, but not on the people.

Katayama Tetsu

Der Zeit Ihre Kunst
Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit

Inscription on the Secession Building, Vienna [To the time, its art; to art, its freedom.]

The rabble? That’s me!

Alfred E. Smith

All biography is alibiography.

Claire Booth Luce

Hopefully he is not as stupid as he seems, nor as Mafia-like as his background makes him appear.

Fidel Castro, on George W. Bush (2001)

When a situation is hopeless, never listen to counsels of hope. Fold the enterprise. Do nothing unless you know exactly what you will do if it turns out to have been the wrong thing.

Dwight Eisenhower

Unsurpassed knower of the world.

Epithet of the Buddha, from Buddha Dipamkara

Money pads the edges of things.

E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910)

A language is a dialect with an army.

G. B. Shaw

Quemcumque Miserum Videris Hominem Scias (Whomsoever you see in distress, recognize in him a fellow man)

Motto of the Royal Life Saving Society

Context is everything. For example, nipples are nice, but not in an omelette.

Al Murray

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Mark Twain

I have chief charge of you under God, both of your souls and bodies.

Henry VIII

When you meet the foe you will defeat him. No quarter will be given, no prisoners taken. Let all who fall into your hands be at your mercy. Gain a reputation like the Huns under Attila.

Wilhelm II, sending German soldiers off to China in 1900

[Egolessness] frees us of the burden of self-interest.

Ösel Tendzin, Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand (1987)

Maps exist at the crossroads of science and culture.

Susan Schulten, The Geographical Imagination in America 1880-1950 (2001)

The Darwinian idea [is] that no type of living creature is permanent.

Ellsworth Huntington, World-Power and Evolution (1919)

A man cannot think muddled and write clear.

John Steinbeck, in an introduction to the speeches of Adlai Stevenson

The statesman’s duty is the bridge the gap between his nation’s experience and his vision. If he gets too far ahead of his people, he will lose his mandate; if he confines himself to the conventional he will lose control over events.

Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (1982)

The New Deal is not dead. If it were dead the Democratic Party would be dead, and well dead.

Henry A. Wallace (1944)

I like the best of both worlds – I’m quite ready to be picturesque, but I draw the line at inconvenience and hard work.

Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

If it’s green and slimy, it’s biology. If it smells bad and explodes, it’s chemistry. If it doesn’t work, it’s physics.

Tucker Hiatt, on classroom demonstrations

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.

Groucho Marx

Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.

H. L. Mencken

He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.

Oscar Wilde

I have a canine appetite for books.

Jefferson, in a letter to Adams

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.

Søren Kierkegaard

This is the law; you find the precedent.

John Marshall, giving his clerks a draft opinion.

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.

H. L. Mencken

Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.


The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.


Hippie: One of a group of people, typically young people, whose strikingly unconventional dress and behavior, marked especially by the use of psychedelic drugs, express withdrawal from or nonparticipation in conventional, middle class life and indifference to its values. Variant of hipster.

Funk & Wagnall’s Standard College Dictionary (1974)

All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.

H. L. Mencken

Death is only a horizon; a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

Very Rev. Arthur Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster, at funeral of Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon [the Queen Mother] (2002)

Great art loves chains.


To my friends: My work is done. Why wait?

George Eastman’s suicide note

The reputation of power is power.

Thomas Hobbes

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

William Faulkner

The five pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty, Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues. Any one of the three first, can at any time, over bear any one of the two last.

John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson

I can as easily still the fierce tempests or stop the rapid thunder bolt, as command the motions and operations of my own mind.

John Adams, aged 20, in his journal

The whole drama of the world is such tragedy that I am weary of the spectacle.

John Adams, to Abigail Adams (1793)

The horizontal is given; the vertical has to be made.

Adrian Frutiger, Signs and Symbols

How can a troubled mind
Understand the way?
If a man is disturbed
He will never be filled with knowledge


What’s the use of being old if you can’t be dumb?

Pal Joey, by John O’Hara

“Immemorial custom of the service” = “we’ve lost the paperwork.”


The nearer to the chapel, the further from God.


Look at unhappy Ireland! How feeble is a system of iniquity? How weak is justice?

General Sir Charles Napier

  1. Williams added that this was true of all human relationships “except when there is the rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”