I’ve written twice in recent days about The Yale Book of Quotations, which I mostly like very much. Yet I can’t help but think that for all the considerable virtues of this particular specimen of the genre, the old-fashioned dictionary of quotations may be an idea whose time has come and gone.
The problem, of course, is that in many ways—though not all—such books are far easier to use once they’ve been digitized. I found this out a couple of years ago when I started using the quotation-search feature of bartleby.com, the online reference site that makes it possible to search simultaneously in The Columbia World of Quotations, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, and the 1919 edition of Bartlettt’s Familiar Quotations. None of these volumes is ideal, but taken together they constitute a formidable super-reference tool, especially when you can search them electronically. Were bartleby.com to add H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations to its quiver, it would border on the indispensable.
As I observed in The Wall Street Journal, The Yale Book of Quotations is itself a meta-tool whose compilers have used the Web shrewdly:
Fred R. Shapiro, the editor, has made use of what he refers to in his preface as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. Mr. Shapiro and his associates have employed Eighteenth Century Collections Online, JSTOR, LexisNexis, Literature Online, newspaperarchive.com, ProQuest, Questia and the Times Digital Archive assiduously and well…I now know, for instance, that the phrase “shop till you drop” is a paraphrase of a line in Noël Coward’s 1938 play “Still Life,” while I was staggered to discover that George Orwell, of all people, appears to have coined Murphy’s Law in 1941: “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly.” In 2002 I published a biography of H.L. Mencken on which I’d been working for a decade. I spent much of that time sifting through Mencken’s private papers, in which I found a wealth of invaluable information—but I wasn’t able to pin down the exact occasion on which he coined the phrase “Bible Belt.” Well, Mr. Shapiro and his trusty computer succeeded in doing what I couldn’t do: Mencken first used it in a column published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 19, 1924.
On the other hand, my guess is that I would use The Yale Book of Quotations far more frequently if I could load it into my iBook or access it online, and I suspect that most under-50 writers and scholars (a category to which I no longer belong!) are likely to feel the same way. Books are blessed objects, but I question whether there is anything special to be gained by looking up the source of a quotation or the meaning of a word by riffling through a fat stack of bound sheets of paper. The two-volume Shorter Oxford still rests proudly on my desk, but I sadly confess that I can’t remember the last time I cracked it. When I need to look up a word, I do it online.
It happens, however, that I read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover. “Yeah, right,” my Wall Street Journal editor said when he ran across that claim in the first draft of my column, to which I replied firmly that I’d turned every damn page. Granted, I was sick as a dog that week and didn’t feel up to reading anything that required consecutive thought, but the fact remains that I did it, and in the process made any number of serendipitous discoveries, including the one about Mencken, that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made had I been “reading” The Yale Book of Quotations on a CD-ROM.
Therein lies the one great advantage of old-fashioned books: they lend themselves to browsing in a way that computerized databases do not. If books on paper continue to be printed and published a half-century from now, that may be the main reason for their survival. Longtime readers of this blog doubtless suspect that I’ve long nurtured the desire to compile my own dictionary of quotations. Ever since “About Last Night” went live in 2003, I’ve posted a quotation each weekday, none of which has been repeated intentionally. (I’ve slipped once or twice.) These almanac entries are the postmodern equivalent of a commonplace book, and taken together they say at least as much about me as Mencken’s New Dictionary says about him.
That’s not coincidental. As I pointed out in my Mencken biography:
The only important author missing from its 1,347 pages is Mencken himself, who told Time that “I thought it would be unseemly to quote myself. I leave that to the intelligence of posterity.” Yet the New Dictionary bears the dark stamp of his skepticism on every page, and at least one critic, Morton Dauwen Zabel, was quick to grasp the fact: “The impression soon becomes inescapable that what Mencken has produced as a Dictionary of Quotations is really a transcendent Prejudices: Seventh Series, a Notes on Humanity, or more expressly Mencken’s Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others.”
I’m old-fashioned enough to wish that I could spin my almanac entries into a book, and new-fangled enough to know that I probably won’t get the chance. Commonplace books do get published on occasion, but only when they happen to have been kept by such famous folk as W.H. Auden or Alec Guinness. I have little doubt that it is the fate of my serial commonplace book to blush unseen, save by the readers of this blog and those Googlers who happen by chance to stumble across its contents. Yet I keep it anyway, and I’m glad I do, for choosing each day’s entry adds a discreet pinch of savor to my life. I hope it does the same for you.