The Wit and Wisdom of the Ages: Gyles Brandreth’s Messing about in Quotes

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revels in the world of quirky quotations courtesy of Gyles Brandreth

Here at Interesting Literature we love a good quotation. Much wit and wisdom have been condensed into a single line, or perhaps two pithy lines, and so a book of quotations is always a welcome addition to the creaking bookshelves here at IL Towers. The latest book to hit the shelves comes courtesy of a review copy of Gyles Brandreth’s Messing About in Quotes: A Little Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations – its title itself, of course, alluding to if not quoting directly from Kenneth Grahame/Mr Toad. And there’s something suitably Toadlike about Messing about in Quotes: dashing about from one subject to another, taking in animals and birds on one page and then apologies and excuses on the next, before we move on to cats and dogs, certainty and doubt, and so on through the alphabet, right through to sections treating words, work, writers, writing, and youth. (Zebras, I’m sorry to say, don’t get their own section, but then one wonders how many great zebra-themed quips there have been down the centuries.)

Gyles Brandreth is the perfect person to curate such an anthology of the witty, wise, and quirky things people have said about everything from reading to royalty, letters to libraries, golf to gossip. (How can one not have at least a sneaking bit of admiration for someone whose three children are named after the seventeenth-century playwright Aphra Behn, and Benet and Saethryd from the writings of Bede? Although the last-named of these must get annoyed at people’s failed efforts to pronounce her name correctly.) Brandreth is well-read and has a magpie-mind which seems directly wired up to the great and good from the world of letters. This served him well here, and even though I haven’t finished reading Messing about in Quotes – for who would sit down and read such a book cover-to-cover? – I’ve already discovered a host of new quotations I hadn’t heard before, which raised a smile.

There’s James Barnes (‘You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much’); gems from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (‘Consult: To seek another’s approval of a course already decided on’); Clarence Darrow sounding oddly topical (‘When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President. I’m beginning to believe it’); and Sam Levenson on matrimony (‘The only person who listens to both sides of a husband and wife argument is the woman in the next apartment’). And this, from the ever-witty Richard Brinsley Sheridan – who may in his lifetime have been as quick and sharp as his nineteenth-century counterpart, Oscar Wilde: ‘Mr Speaker, I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable member may place the punctuation where he pleases.’ We also find Anne Enright being honest about the feline friends we love who use us as they see fit: ‘Cats, I always think, only jump into your lap to check if you are cold enough, yet, to eat.’ And I had no idea that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu penned a response to Jonathan Swift’s ‘The Ladies’ Dressing Room’ (about a woman named Celia who, the speaker of the poem discovers, goes to the toilet just like everyone else), which contains the memorable couplet: ‘I’m glad you’ll write, / You’ll furnish paper when I shite.’

One slight frustration is Brandreth’s decision not to provide sources. In the age of Wikiquote (itself an imperfect source, but nevertheless a resource that seeks to provide reliable citations for who said what), a book of quotations that simply credits an author without providing more detail is likely to raise the hackles slightly among the more scholarly and diligent quotation-lovers. The noted quotations researcher Nigel Rees calls the habit of attributing memorable lines to famous people ‘Churchillian drift’. Or, as George S. Kaufman is rumoured to have said, ‘Everything I’ve ever said will be credited to Dorothy Parker.’ Or was that Dorothy Parker?

Mind you, even those more sourced collections of quotations have sometimes erred. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cited Ralph Waldo Emerson saying ‘I hate quotations’; ironically, this is in fact a misquotation. Messing About in Quotes: A Little Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, this new collection from Oxford University Press will certainly remind you why loving a good quotation is such a pleasurable thing, and you’ll have plenty of new witticisms to take to your next dinner party or water-cooler conversation.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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