June 14, 2011 - Happy Birthday, John Bartlett

Quotations will tell the full measure of meaning, if you have enough of them. ~James Murray

A fine quotation is a diamond on the finger of a witty person, but a pebble in the hands of a fool. ~Author Unknown

A book of quotations... can never be complete. ~Robert M. Hamilton

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On this day in 1820, John Bartlett was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was an early reader—starting to read at age three, he had read the entire Bible by age nine! He began working at the Harvard University bookstore when he was 16 years old, and he soon owned the store. He was so well known for his memory of quotations and trivia, in his community of Cambridge, MA, that people commonly turned to him as a quick reference resource. You would often hear, when people disagreed about the wording or source of a quote, when people didn't know a fact, when people were stumped, “Ask Bartlett!”

Remember, they didn't have Google back then!

Bartlett began to publish a book of quotations called Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. About one third of the quotes came from the Bible and from William Shakespeare. Many quotes came from famous British poets.

He also wrote about fishing and chess, and he spent an estimated 16,000 hours creating a massive concordance of Shakespeare (a reference book with an alphabetized list of words used in a body of work, with their contexts). But Bartlett is most famous for his books of quotations. He oversaw nine editions of this book, and new editions, with updated quotations, were published for another 100 years after his death!

So, you see, Robert M. Hamilton was right: A book of quotations can never be complete!

Compile your own!

Get a blank book—maybe an attractive hardbound book, or an inexpensive spiral notebook, one with lined or blank pages—and start to compile your own personal favorite quotations. You can jot down favorite lines from songs or poems, a bit of graffiti, lines from movies, TV shows, or books, or stirring words from the speeches of great women and men. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts." Daniel Patrick Moynihan
  • You're gonna need a bigger boat.” – the Brody character in the movie Jaws, when he saw for the first time just how large the shark they were trying to catch really was
  • Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.” – Carl Sagan
  • Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy.” – Princess Leia
  • Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan
  • If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” – Isaac Asimov

  • "Inconceivable!"
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." – Inigo Montoya and Vizzini, in The Princess Bride

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