Quotes

Edith Wharton

I enjoyed reading The Age of Innocence. The subtle social satire is entertaining, though sometimes hard to connect with because of the difference between the contemporary world and 1870s. My favorite parts are when situations are such that they could have happened exactly the same way today:
The next morning Archer scoured the town in vain for more yellow roses. In consequence of this search he arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life.
I also really enjoyed The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton's satire about a very ambitious woman that destroys everything she feels unimportant to achieve her ends. It has some very choice quotes.

"If you're as detached as that, why does the obsolete institution of marriage survive with you?"

Oh, it still has its uses. One couldn't be divorced without it.

And this one sums up the novel:
She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.

Moby Dick

I love this quote from Moby-Dick about the sea as a means for curing a morose spirit:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
Melville understood cognitive dissonance well:
If I had been downright honest with myself, I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.
The "crack of doom" is a phrase referring to the blaring of trumpets that heralds the Last Judgment. As you might expect from such a piquant phrase, it's been used to some effect in literature. In Moby Dick Melville uses it to describe the enduring dangers of the sea:
But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment.s consideration will teach that, however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

War and Peace

Tolstoy certainly didn't predict the future with this one:
Bonaparte was born lucky. He has excellent soldiers. And the Germans were the first he attacked. You'd have to be a do-nothing not to beat the Germans. Ever the since the world began, everybody's beaten the Germans. And they've beaten nobody.
At least he acknowledged the difficulty of making predictions:
There are always so many suppositions about the outcome of every event which takes place that, however it ends, people will always be found who say, "I said back then that it would be like this," quite forgetting that among the numberless suppositions, there were some that were completely contrary.

Cannery Row

In Cannery Row, one of the main characters, Doc, recalls a conversation:
Blaisedell, the poet, had said to him, "You love beer so much, I.ll bet someday you.ll go in and order a beer milk shake." It was a simple piece of foolery but it had bothered Doc ever since. He wondered what a beer milk shake would taste like. The idea gagged him but he couldn.t let it alone. It cropped up every time he had a glass of beer. Would it curdle the milk? Would you add sugar? It was like a shrimp ice cream.
Steinbeck means this to be somewhat humorous, but now, 65 years later, there actually are beer milkshakes. Indeed it's easy to find both guides and videos onlineSome of them incorrectly claim that the beer milkshake is due to Red Dwarf, but while that is a fine show the chronology here is fairly clear.. Not only that, but shrimp ice cream is itself available, and moreover even has its own eating contest. John Steinbeck truly was a seer of odd food.

Sinclair Lewis

Self-reference is a common feature found in post-modern literatureSome excellent examples of self-reference are found in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.. But I find it interesting that earlier authors played around with some elements of self-reference. One famous example is Don Quixote, which purports to be a translation of a real text that Cervantes discovered. This allows Cervantes to introduce his own judgments and (often amusing) criticisms at the characters. Another amusing instance I discovered in Elmer Gantry, wherein Sinclair Lewis has the title character express his dislike for satirical writing:
I know that if you could lose your intellectual pride, if you could forget that you have to make a new world, better'n the creator's, right away tonight--you and Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis', Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn't go to literary teas quite as often as he does!--that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)!

Nicholas Nickleby

He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice favour runs in favour of two.
In journeys, as in life, it is a great deal easier to go down hill than up.

Our Mutual Friend

I really enjoyed Our Mutual Friend, which has a lot of sharp satire. Although still full of social criticism, it has a lighter tone than Dickens's two previous books (A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations), and the inclusion of several ridiculous scenes makes for many a laugh-out-loud section. One bit I particularly liked involves Silas Wegg, who is hired by Mr. Boffin to read to him (as the latter is illiterate):

"Could you begin to night, Wegg?" he then demanded.

"Yes, sir," said Mr Wegg, careful to leave all the eagerness to him. "I see no difficulty if you wish it. You are provided with the needful implement.a book, sir?"

"Bought him at a sale," said Mr Boffin. "Eight wollumes. Red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off. Do you know him?"

"The book's name, sir?" inquired Silas.

"I thought you might have know'd him without it," said Mr Boffin slightly disappointed. "His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire." (Mr Boffin went over these stones slowly and with much caution.)

"Ay indeed!" said Mr Wegg, nodding his head with an air of friendly recognition.

"You know him, Wegg?"

"I haven't been not to say right slap through him, very lately," Mr Wegg made answer, "having been otherways employed, Mr Boffin. But know him? Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshan? Rather, sir! Ever since I was not so high as your stick. Ever since my eldest brother left our cottage to enlist into the army.

Of course it doesn't take long for Wegg to realize Boffin's error. How does his claim of familiarity get resolved when he learns the truth?

"Hem!" began Wegg, "This, Mr Boffin and Lady, is the first chapter of the first wollume of the Decline and Fall off." here he looked hard at the book, and stopped.

"What's the matter, Wegg?"

"Why, it comes into my mind, do you know, sir," said Wegg with an air of insinuating frankness (having first again looked hard at the book), "that you made a little mistake this morning, which I had meant to set you right in, only something put it out of my head. I think you said Rooshan Empire, sir?"

"It is Rooshan; ain't it, Wegg?"

"No, sir. Roman. Roman."

"What's the difference, Wegg?"

"The difference, sir?" Mr Wegg was faltering and in danger of breaking down, when a bright thought flashed upon him. "The difference, sir? There you place me in a difficulty, Mr Boffin. Suffice it to observe, that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when Mrs Boffin does not honour us with her company. In Mrs Boffin's presence, sir, we had better drop it."

In another amusing section, Eugene Wrayburn (who seems to get all the best lines), a barrister, is asked by Mr. Boffin whether he enjoys his work.

"A—not particularly," returned Eugene.

"Too dry for you, eh? Well, I suppose it wants some years of sticking to, before you master it. But there's nothing like work. Look at the bees."

"I beg your pardon," returned Eugene, with a reluctant smile, "but will you excuse my mentioning that I always protest against being referred to the bees?"

"Do you!" said Mr Boffin.

"I object on principle," said Eugene, "as a biped."

"As a what?" asked Mr Boffin.

"As a two-footed creature;—I object on principle, as a two-footed creature, to being constantly referred to insects and four-footed creatures. I object to being required to model my proceedings according to the proceedings of the bee, or the dog, or the spider, or the camel. I fully admit that the camel, for instance, is an excessively temperate person; but he has several stomachs to entertain himself with, and I have only one. Besides, I am not fitted up with a convenient cool cellar to keep my drink in."

"But I said, you know," urged Mr Boffin, rather at a loss for an answer, "the bee."

"Exactly. And may I represent to you that it's injudicious to say the bee? For the whole case is assumed. Conceding for a moment that there is any analogy between a bee, and a man in a shirt and pantaloons (which I deny), and that it is settled that the man is to learn from the bee (which I also deny), the question still remains, what is he to learn? To imitate? Or to avoid? When your friends the bees worry themselves to that highly fluttered extent about their sovereign, and become perfectly distracted touching the slightest monarchical movement, are we men to learn the greatness of Tuft-hunting, or the littleness of the Court Circular? I am not clear, Mr Boffin, but that the hive may be satirical."

"At all events, they work," said Mr Boffin.

"Ye-es," returned Eugene, disparagingly, "they work; but don't you think they overdo it? They work so much more than they need.they make so much more than they can eat.they are so incessantly boring and buzzing at their one idea till Death comes upon them.that don't you think they overdo it? And are human labourers to have no holidays, because of the bees? And am I never to have change of air, because the bees don't? Mr Boffin, I think honey excellent at breakfast; but, regarded in the light of my conventional schoolmaster and moralist, I protest against the tyrannical humbug of your friend the bee. With the highest respect for you."

Another humorous line from Eugene:

Returning to the dining-room, and pausing for an instant behind the screen at the door, Eugene overhears, above the hum and clatter, the fair Tippins saying: "I am dying to ask him what he was called out for!"

"Are you?" mutters Eugene, "then perhaps if you can't ask him, you'll die. So I'll be a benefactor to society, and go."

Kurt Vonnegut

In the introduction to his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box Kurt Vonnegut talks about some of his early career, before he became successful and critically acclaimed (only after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five). This included teaching creative writing at City College in New York (along with Joseph Heller). But for those that missed the chance, he gives us the essence of it in eight easy rules:
  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them.in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Of course he then says that great writers break all but the first.

John Adams

Just two days off:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
July 3, 1776

Notes