Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations (1992)

I have an aversion to driving in the rain. Reduced visibility, lightning, the risk of hydroplaning  these things make me nervous. But years ago, I braved a Texas summer thunderstorm despite these obstacles. I was on a quest for a book of idioms, and being on a quest romanticizes life's challenges, emboldens the adventurer. At least that's what I told myself.

The rain smacked my windshield like pellets. Lightning flared like a heliarc. But I drove on. I finally pulled into the unpaved parking lot of my local library, shut off the engine, and listened to the terrific kettle drum solo on the roof of my Taurus. I wondered whether I should wait for the concert to end before sprinting the sixty yards from my car to the main entrance. Sensing the onset of a migraine, I bolted.

The rain struck my umbrella like a fusillade as I splashed along the sidewalk. Beside me, the heavy traffic eased forward, headlights blazing, creating the appearance of a funeral procession.

If my dash to the doors had caused me to overlook the early afternoon's preternatural gloom, I couldn't miss it now; the 
library's main entrance, a huge multi-pane glass facade, swelled like a reactorIt was as if the sun, having fled the sky, had found refuge within the bowels of the building. Ads, posters, and schedules taped against the inside of the glass facing out were illumined like lampshades, made semi-transparent by the brilliance beyond.

I pushed past the waist-high turnstile and rushed to the reference desk. That's when I noticed I'd already tracked half a dozen figure eights of unpaved parking lot mud across the linoleum. I returned to the commercial entrance mats and pawed them with my sneakers like a bull preparing to charge as thunder slammed the building and sent the fluorescent lights into arrhythmia.

I never found that book of idioms, but I
 did grab four hardbound volumes featuring everything else from epigrams and aphorisms to proverbs, bon mots, and toastsThe quaint quartet was part of a set called Complete Speaker’s and Toastmaster’s Library, and today, all these summers later, I can't help but consider the contrast between those and this more recent read, Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations, which seems so quarrelsome by comparison. 

Looking back on those four volumes, a symbiosis of sentiment seems to have pervaded. It was as if the composers of each entry all shared the same sensei. I remember imagining those authors and orators at some highbrow dinner party, rapping their champagne flutes with their spoons, clearing their throats, and affirming what everyone else in attendance regarded as true, the unique rhythm and timbre of their voices being the only real disparity. I'm sure the distance of time, from this moment to those many summers ago, morphs mobs into choirs, but I elect to cherish this fond fiction, if it is indeed a fiction, until some snooping statistician proves me wrong.

In contrast, wordsmiths from Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations are more likely to incite a food fight. Regarding Beauty...
What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon also be beautiful.” - Sappho
It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” - Leo Tolstoy

Body and Face...
How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” - Katherine Mansfield
If anything is sacred the human body is sacred.” - Walt Whitman

Optimism and Pessimism...
The optimist claims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” – James Branch Cabell
I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself.” – G.K. Chesterton

I've got only two complaints. While I oppose the ad hominem, I take exception to known subverters and tyrants. I'll abide Timothy Leary, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, even Carl Marx, but why quote Fidel Castro, Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung? Incidentally, those last two villains, though featured in the book, aren't listed in the Index. Conversely, the humorist Fran Lebowitz, while indexed, isn't featured in the book. 

Here a better writer would insert a pithy remark about how recording the deeds and declarations of moppets and mass murderers is perfectly acceptable for biographies, encyclopedias, and history books but shouldn't appear in a tome whose subtitle reads 4,000 thought-provoking quotations from the world's most celebrated men and women. Personally, I'd prefer they be consigned to a grimoire entitled The Infamous Drivel of Communists and FascistsRegrettably, despite my inordinate exposure, I'm incapable of crafting such a pithy remark.

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