Sally Emerson’s top 10 books of quotations

Sally Emerson, author of several novels including Second Sight and Broken Bodies, has recently published In Loving Memory, A Collection for Memorial Services, Funerals and Just Getting By, an anthology of poetry and extracts intended for reading at funerals. Here, she picks her favourite quotation books.

1. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles

A desert island book? Probably. After all, it might remind you of the some of the key passages of great literature. Plus, if you learned enough, you could become a triumph of learning and wisdom – if a little trying. This fifth edition, with over 20,000 quotations and 3,000 authors, has 2,000 new quotations including proverbs and nursery rhymes and snippets from the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita. Some of the more modern ones are irritating (Boy George saying that Madonna is a “gay man trapped in a woman’s body”, for example). Fine in a dictionary of modern quotations, but too ephemeral in a volume designed to collate the best quotations of all time. Nevertheless, this is still a magnificent volume.

2. The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations edited by JM and MJ Cohen

What power these editors of quotations have; they choose which are the most apposite of the millions of words written. My 1967 edition of this popular volume has 12,000 quotations and has stood up to being consulted on innumerable occasions. It has the battered look of a well-used book. The two Cohens here are father and the son; the son, MJ Cohen, “worked on the dictionary during most of his Cambridge vacations, contributing particularly quotations from drama and some 17th-century and modern writers”. The quotations are closely packed, but this adds to the air of seriousness and intensity. By comparison, some of the more modern dictionaries look a little too well designed, more superficial.

3. Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature edited by John Bartlett

First published in 1875, this classic American collection is not so well known in the UK. My edition is a leather-bound one, dated 1902. The edition and the layout can be just as important to the charm of these volumes as the particular quotations. On the title page are the words “I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” Here, there are all kinds of wonderful treasures, including quotations from authors long since forgotten, with of course an American bias (plenty of Emerson). Excellent for browsing. These old editions stop the reader from being forced to accept the quotations that are fashionable today.

4. The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations edited by Robert Andrews

Begins with a great quote from Labour politician Diane Abbott, from the Independent on Sunday in 1998: “The honest truth is that if this government were to propose a massacre of the first-born, it would still have no difficulty in getting it through the Commons”. The task of choosing 8,000 quotations from the myriad of words pouring out from today’s newspapers and books is not easy, and represents a much harder task than choosing the great pithy or provocative or glorious quotes from the past. After all, what is funny and new one month nowadays can already seem stale by the next, and some of these already feel unexciting. Time is of course one of the greatest editors of quotations, and the modern collections do not have his help. But there is much here that is remarkable, and there are many excellent quotations from last century’s newspapers which would otherwise have disappeared. Usefully, this collection also provides brief details of the speaker or writer before each quotation.

5. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations edited by Peter Kemp

Over 4,000 quotations around the theme of writing and the life of writers. Peter Kemp writes: “Fascinating quotations have turned up from remote eras. Fearsome penalties invoked against remiss users of a clay-tablet library in ancient Assyria make our present system of fines look absurdly lenient: the gods are called upon to punish anyone ‘who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognise it’ with ‘a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth!'” The dictionary is organised in themes, alphabetically from Accolade and Admiration to Writer’s Block, Writing, and WB Yeats. Entertaining, and excellent for browsing.

6. The Penguin Concise Dictionary of Biographical Quotation edited by Justin Wintle and Richard Kenin

Good collection of gossip, information, praise and malice about everyone from the Earl of Aberdeen to John Wycliffe. Useful for students wanting to compare who said what about whom. For instance, Cyril Connolly on Virginia Woolf: “Virginia Woolf seemed to have the worst defect of the Mandarin style, the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing … ” Or David Garnett: “Virginia had this reputation of being a rather malicious person – deservedly so, I think.”

7. The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin

Used by many a speechmaker, it is divided into themes including Christmas, the country, education, happiness. The quotations are witty rather than merely funny; for instance, Alan Bennett on old age: “In England, you see, age wipes the slate clean … If you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg they think you deserve the Nobel prize.” Or from Harold Laski: “That state of resentful coma that … dons dignify by the name of research.”

8. The Concise Dictionary of Foreign Quotations edited by Anthony Lejeune

Good collection for those who wish to show off. Once, when everyone knew Latin, the quote book was just for checking. Now it’s for pretending. But watch out: Virgil’s “she acquires strength as she goes” refers to the power of ancient gossip and is no use for Olympic commentators on Paula Radcliffe.

9. The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations edited by Antony Jay

Here are many quotations better left unsaid, such as Henry II’s “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” or Tony Blair’s memo that “we need two or three eyecatching initiatives … and I should be associated with as much of this as possible”. Not to mention Hillary Clinton’s nice understatement that her husband was a “hard dog to keep on the porch”.

10. Handbook of 20th Century Quotations compiled by Frank S Pepper

The editor maintained a catalogued collection of quotations over a period of 50 years; he collected over 20,000 quotations and 6,000 are in this book, many of which are not in other books of quotations. Nowadays few people keep commonplace books, even fewer personally collect quotations (Oxford has a whole dictionary department working on books like these) so these collections are all worth having. One test of excellence when judging a collection of quotations is finding something intriguing every time you open a page. For instance: “Everything goes wrong for a government which is going wrong” – Richard Crossman, Diaries, Dec 1 1986. There is hardly a dull or irritating quote here.


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