A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was recently re-reading Dorothy L Sayers’ Have His Carcase (following a joint review of Gaudy Night, here on Vulpes), I was delighted to stumble upon the source of a quotation I’ve hauled around in my mental luggage for most of my adult life – and even occasionally launched at some unwitting (and probably unappreciative) recipients:
“I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking.”
Imagine then my pleasure at finding that very same quotation being deployed by Gyles Brandreth as the starting point for his gently wicked and illuminating introduction to the 5th edition of the OUP’s Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, in which he admits to having been a collector of quotations since the age of eleven. Working it out on both hands and my nose, I calculated that he started his collection some seven years before I started mine at the age of ten.
He wrote his favourite quotations in small blue notebooks while I used little booklets I had made myself – à la Brontë family – from cut up sheets of papers, stuck together inartistically with sticky tape and decorated enthusiastically with coloured pencils, capital letters and no eye whatsoever for design.
Over the years my facility for quotation has variously caused startlement, bemusement and outright astonishment, depending on the audience at the time. It was probably not, for instance, an entirely sensible move to offer up: “… and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss” as an aide memoire in a First Aid class on the recovery position – causing the eyes of the ‘casualty’ to shoot open in alarm and her leg to twitch convulsively.
Only very rarely have I actually impressed anyone with my apparent learning – culled almost entirely from books of quotation and my own childhood collection of other people’s wit and wisdom. Mostly, I think people merely regard me as a mildly eccentric.
Dictionaries of quotations are, however, far more than just reference books, only good for ransacking whenever you need to make yourself look sophisticated and erudite (although they’re good for that too, of course). Good ones – and this is a great one – engage your interest in their own right.
Few us read – or indeed watch – very widely. We have our own favourite writers, film directors, programmes, comedians, poets, actors, genres and subjects. There is simply too much ‘stuff’ out there to pay all of it the attention it merits – or possibly doesn’t. Dictionaries of quotations introduce us to worlds, places, people and ways of thinking we would never, in the normal course of events, touch with a bargepole. I first discovered the wonderful Ambrose Bierce through dictionaries of quotations … along with Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck and – believe it or not – Brendan Behan.
The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotation works beautifully on several levels.
(1) It’s an excellent straightforward reference book. With its exhaustive index of subjects and authors, it’s an absolute godsend for desperate speechwriters seeking inspiration and borrowed bons mots.
(2) It’s a snapshot of the strange world in which we live … where past meets present in the most unexpected places. In what OTHER book will you find Miranda Hart:
Miranda: Good morning Mum, how are you?
Penny: Don’t get emotional, we’re not Spanish.
rubbing shoulders with Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I find it difficult to take much interest in a man whose father was a dragon. (Apologizing for his inability to appreciate Morris’s ‘Sigurd the Volsung’.
— both under the heading of “The Family”?
(3) Finally, it’s just the BEST bedside book in the world. When you’ve been seized by a fit of insomnia, or your brain’s scrambled and you can’t concentrate on anything – not even P G Wodehouse – you can pick this up and spend a happy hour in its company without feeling that you’re doing further, possibly irrevocable, damage to your neural pathways. Just try not to honk and snort too loudly in the wee small hours … it frightens the neighbours and gives them entirely the wrong idea.
As a parting gift, I offer five disparate quotations, culled at random from wherever the book happened to fall open:
On England: An Englishman considers himself a self-made man, and thereby relieves the Almighty of a terrible responsibility. (Anonymous, unattributed – The Times.)
On History: I was still a mediaeval historian, not a profession, I imagine, with a high sexual strike rate. (Alan Bennett – Untold Stories).
On Poetry: Haikus are easy. But sometimes they don’t make sense. Refrigerator. (Anonymous)
On Sickness and Health: I feel as young as I ever did, apart from the occasional heart attack. (Robert Benchley – attributed.)
On The Universe: After one look at this planet, any visitor from outer space would say ‘I WANT TO SEE THE MANAGER’. (William S Burroughs – The Adding Machine.)
Oxford University Press. 2013. ISBN:978-0-19-968136-5. 465pp.