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- April 10, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 14
For Editor Justin Kaplan, Updating Bartlett's Is as Easy as Shopping for a New Quote
Winston S. Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life (1930)
I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal (1849)
I can't seem to get started on this story. Let's see if there's a quote or two in Bartlett's I can use. Anonymous Writer, PEOPLE (1989)
For almost a century and a half, blocked writers and desperate after-dinner speakers have turned to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for the telling phrase—coined by their literary betters—that will give their work a certain cleverness or a patina of erudition. Bartlett 's quotes are indexed by subject, so it's easy to look under, say, "quotations" and come up with the words of Churchill and Emerson.
Times change, though, and new memorable phrases are uttered continually. At the same time, some of what passed for pith in previous eras has lost its zing. After all, why say "If you want to be happy, be" (Alexei Tolstoi, 1884) when you can say, "Don't worry, be happy" (Bobby McFerrin, 1988)?
So Bartlett's, first published in 1855, must keep current. To this end, Little, Brown & Company, publisher of Bartlett's, has hired author Justin Kaplan to edit the 16th Edition, due out in 1992.
Kaplan, 63, has been dipping into Bartlett's since he was 12. Now he will have to get through all 1,540 pages, then begin cutting quotes he feels have had their day. "Every once in a while," he says, "I come across a terrible, sentimental 19th-century quote, and I can't believe anyone would care about it." Next, he must come up with new, more relevant entries. "Until the early part of the 20th century," he says, "every person of literacy was able to quote Tennyson or Melville. Now people use quotes just as much, but they come from movies, TV or rock lyrics."
Kaplan has plenty of ideas about whose utterances he wants to add—and whose he wants out. He thinks, for instance, that Woody Allen ("Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right") is underrepresented. He would like to see more of Norman Mailer and Philip Roth—and less "lachrymose stuff' from Liv Ullmann. He also hopes "to somehow address the rather shameful balance of blacks, women and other minorities." But recent TV, he says, is too derivative to be quotable. "Sock it to me!", the catch phrase from Laugh-In, for example, was coined (as "sock it to him") by Mark Twain. Kaplan is an expert on Twain. His first book, Mr. Clemens and Mr. Twain, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. He has written biographies of Lincoln Steffens and Walt Whitman as well. His wife, Anne, with whom he lives in Cambridge, Mass., is also an author.
Though Kaplan is thrilled about his latest undertaking, he knows that wading through Bartlett's—and through the hundreds of suggestions he has already received—would make plenty of people want to tear their hair and curse. In fact, that reminds him of one more editorial change he plans to make. "I don't think there's one single naughty word in the current Bartlett's," he says. "That's not the way we talk anymore. I'm going to add four-letter words. How can we talk without them?"
You can quote him on that.
—Michael Neill, Toby Kahn in Cambridge
December 19, 2014
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