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Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Justin Kaplan, General Editor

Up to the Minute

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: Sixteenth Edition.
by John Bartlett.
Justin Kaplan, General Editor. Little, Brown. 1,405 pp. $40.00.

The back cover of this, the sixteenth edition of Bartlett’s, features ten quotations selected from the more than 20,000 found inside. That Gloria Steinem, Steve Biko, Grace Slick, and Star Trek fans are the sources of four of them indicates what Justin Kaplan, the well-known biographer of Mark Twain, has tried to do here: turn Bartlett’s into a celebration of the adversary culture and the electronic media.

Kaplan’s main task as editor was to choose new quotations and delete old ones from the fifteenth edition, published in 1980. In the course of adding his 1,600 new gems, he promoted 340 previously unquoted authors to immortality and consigned 245 to oblivion. Many of the new quotations are by contemporary voices, and many of these read like the liberal Left’s Hall of Fame.

Feminism is ascendant, from Susan Brownmiller (“Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe”) to Germaine Greer (“Is it too much to ask that women be spared the daily struggle for superhuman beauty in order to offer it to the caresses of a subhumanly ugly mate?”). No less salient is anti-Americanism, from Philip Caputo (“You’re going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy”) to Toni Morrison (“At no point in my life have I ever felt as though I were American”).

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Kaplan might argue that his choices simply reflect the temper of the times. But a major criterion for inclusion in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is, as it has been since the first edition in 1855, familiarity. So where is a familiar figure like William F. Buckley, Jr., who has presumably produced a witty saying or two in the course of a long career? Or Allan Bloom, whose The Closing of the American Mind included such catchy comments as “Rock music is the. . . . junk food of the soul”? Evidently Kaplan is ignorant of many well-known people and their no less well-known words, or his sense of the familiar is peculiarly selective.

Even when compelled to include a conservative, Kaplan manages to cast a shadow of disapproval. As Adam Meyerson of Policy Review has pointed out, “the new Bartlett’s contains just three quotations from Ronald Reagan”—surely one of the most quotable of American Presidents—“the same number as from Zachary Taylor and Gerald Ford, Presidents hardly remembered for their eloquence.” And to add insult to injury, rather than including Reagan’s prescient attacks on the Soviet system (except in a footnote to the movie Star Wars), or his stirring words on the role of government in America, Kaplan highlights a sentence that casts Reagan in the light of Marie Antoinette (“It’s difficult to believe that people are starving in this country because food isn’t available”). Asked by the Wall Street Journal to explain himself, Kaplan replied that Reagan’s other sayings were not memorable (sic) and, furthermore, were mostly derived from the movies—this, from an editor who states in his preface that the movies “continue to be a rich quotation source.”

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If he leaves little space for conservatives, Kaplan leaves plenty of room for entertainers and other celebrities of the popular culture. “In order to be descriptive,” he writes, “to reflect the way we talk and think, a book called Familiar Quotations, edited and published for the 1990′s, has to look beyond as well as to traditional sources.” What we find “beyond” traditional sources is, basically, newspapers, magazines, television shows, movies, rock-and-roll. Since these, too, tend to be Left-leaning, Kaplan’s bias and his “method” work hand in glove.

Quotations from the electronic media present a special problem: they tend to lose whatever power they might once have possessed when transferred to the printed page. (Item: “People, people who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world. . . .”) And the electronic media—the daily press, too, for that matter—are hardly repositories of our most cogent, complex, or worthwhile observations. “Me want a cookie,” from Sesame Street; “We are the world/We are the children. . . . ,” by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie; the lyrics of “Light My Fire”; a line from the movie E.T.; a caption from the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead: such are Kaplan’s discoveries. Familiar they may be, but one wonders if Kaplan seriously believes they also meet some of the other criteria he sets for inclusion: “literary power, intellectual and historical significance, originality, and timeliness.”

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It could be said that it was the erudite John Bartlett himself who in the mid-19th century set Bartlett’s on the course which has led to Kaplan. By ripping well-known passages from their original contexts and compiling them in a collection of fragments, Bartlett was at the forefront of a long, steady trend of transforming knowledge into data, mere random bits of floating information. And Bartlett compounded the sin by organizing his phrases chronologically according to the date of the author’s birth rather than thematically. (He attemped to compensate by adding a thematic index almost the same length as the quotations themselves.)

Without context, even the most resonant quotations grow faint. And if this is true for quotations of great stature and familiarity, it is even more the case for obscure ones. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” taken from Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, means practically nothing without context or explanation (a footnote in Kaplan’s edition which attempts to supply the want merely exposes the problem). But John Bartlett’s abandonment of context 138 years ago, however questionable, is as nothing compared with Justin Kaplan’s pursuit of liberal sentiment and cultural trivia. Touted as “the most thorough revision in decades,” the sixteenth edition gives us a Bartlett’s in danger of revising itself into uselessness by transforming a once-indispensable collection of significant sayings into a repository of up-to-the-minute trash.

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