Lit Words

I like quotations.  I have no excuse for this; it’s a shameful thing.  I keep a current quote at the bottom and change it on a daily basis, usually.  But here, I have elected to put favorite quotes about writing, reading, and the world surrounding words.  Eventually, I will get these into those categories, but I can’t wait until I finish my quotation project to put these words up!  Enjoy, if you have the same inclinations I do about what other people have to say about one of the best topics of the world.


The smell of the library was always the same – the musty odour of old clothes mixed with the keener scent of unwashed bodies, creating what the chief librarian had once described as “the steam of the social soup”.

Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton


The hotel shop only had two decent books, and I’d written both of them.

Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt


I was hardly fit for human society. Thus destiny shaped me to be a science fiction writer.

Brian Aldiss, The Twinkling of an Eye: My Life as an Englishman


Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts.

Brian Aldiss, Penguin Science Fiction


Writers must fortify themselves with pride and egotism as best they can. The process is analogous to using sandbags and loose timbers to protect a house against flood. Writers are vulnerable creatures like anyone else. For what do they have in reality? Not sandbags, not timbers. Just a flimsy reputation and a name.

Brian Aldiss, Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith’s


Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.

Isaac Asimov, Asimov on Science Fiction


All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand


Before people complain of the obscurity of modern poetry, they should first examine their consciences and ask themselves with how many people and on how many occasions they have genuinely and profoundly shared some experience with another; they might also ask themselves how much poetry of any period they can honestly say that they understand.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand


Words … are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce” on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves – this is a poet’s life. To mount too high or descend too low is allowed in the case of poets, who bring earth and sky together.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space


Whatever an author puts between the two covers of his book is public property; whatever of himself he does not put there is his private property, as much as if he had never written a word.

Mary Abigail Dodge, Country Living and Country Thinking


Readers are less and less seen as mere non-writers, the subhuman “other” or flawed derivative of the author; the lack of a pen is no longer a shameful mark of secondary status but a positively enabling space, just as within every writer can be seen to lurk, as a repressed but contaminating antithesis, a reader.

Terry Eagleton, Against the Grain


To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative — the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.

Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods


The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.  Both errors tend to make him “personal.”  Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.  But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent


We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.  Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.  And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent


In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.  He who has once known its satisfactions is provided with a resource against calamity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims


Poetry must be new as foam, and as old as the rock.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals


Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words, and, in proportion to the inspiration, checks loquacity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Parnassus


The profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader.  The profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine until an equal mind and heart finds and publishes it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims


There are two classes of poets — the poets by education and practice, these we respect; and poets by nature, these we love.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Parnassus


The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own.

William Empson, Milton’s God


I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults.

Desiderius Erasmus, Collected Works of Erasmus


The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft.  You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.

James Fenton, The Independent on Sunday, 24 June 1990


Poetry is the shadow cast by our imaginations.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, These Are My Rivers: New & Selected Poems, 1955-1993


A comic writer should of all others be the least excused for deviating from nature, since it may not be always so easy for a serious poet to meet with the great and the admirable; but life every where furnishes an accurate observer with the ridiculous.

Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews


Only two classes of books are of universal appeal:  the very best and the very worst.

Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance


The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.

E.M. Forster, A Book That Influenced Me


What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse.

E.M. Forster, Anonymity: An Enquiry


From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography


This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me.  Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself.  I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind; and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary.

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography


An original idea.  That can’t be too hard.  The library must be full of them.

Stephen Fry, The Liar


What’s great about them is that anybody can go into them and find a book and borrow it free of charge and read it.  They don’t have to steal it from a bookshop … You know when you’re young, you’re growing up, they’re almost sexually exciting places because books are powerhouses of knowledge, and therefore they’re kind of slightly dark and dangerous.  You see books that kind of make you go “Oh!”

Stephen Fry, Room 101


The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it’s about and why you’re doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience.  Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising (“but of course that’s why he was doing that, and that means that …”) and it’s magic and wonderful and strange.

Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman’s Journal


Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.

Neil Gaiman, somewhat less sinister ducks


Writing is a long and lonesome business; back of the problems in thought and composition hover always the awful questions:  Is this the page that shows the empty shell?  Is it here and now that they find me out?

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash, 1929


Audiences and critics acknowledge that a play or concerto gains force in great rendition.  A good play may overcome bad staging.  A great concerto may survive a poor soloist.  But it is naturally assumed that a more accomplished performance intensifies the impact of the work.  The play’s text or concerto’s score does not change, but the right actors and musicians help realize its full potential.  Among contemporary literary critics, however, one never encounters this notion in regard to books and printing.  To recognize the sensual contributions of the physical elements of a book is somehow assumed to demean the spiritual purity of the text.  To notice the book itself smacks of philistinism, and to make distinctions based on paper, binding, and typography brings accusations of elitism or decadence.

Dana Gioia, Designing Literature: Creative Collaboration


Being so deeply rooted in one place and culture allows a genuine writer to experiment wildly with the material without ever losing touch with its essence.

Dana Gioia, The Most Unfashionable Poet Now Alive:  Charles Causely


Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life.  Though supported by a local coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.

Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?


Like the intricately rational web of theology woven around the irrational mysteries of faith, the sober explanations of institutions for hoarding literary relics seem like elegant post-factum justifications for what is essentially a sense of sacred awe.  An institution of learning seeks significant manuscripts because they possess qualities that scholarship cannot entirely reproduce — an authentic, holistic connection with the great writers of the past.  It is not the intellectual content of the manuscript that is important but its material presence — ink spots, tobacco stains, pinworm holes, and foxing included.

Dana Gioia, The Magical Value of Manuscripts


Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around — not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.

Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?


Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse.  They don’t publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems.  The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.  One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones.  It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention.  Few people bother, generally not even the magazines’ contributors.  The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind — journals that love poetry not wisely but too well.

Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?


The engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success — the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university — have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?


A book may be very amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity.

Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield


As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent.

Oliver Goldsmith, The Bee


They liked the book the better the more it made them cry.

Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer


When puzzled, it never hurts to read the primary documents — a rather simple and self-evident principle that has, nonetheless, completely disappeared from large sectors of the American experience.

Stephen Jay Gould, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms


A good poem is a tautology.  It expands one word by adding a number which clarify it, thus making a new word which has never before been spoken.  The seed-word is always so ordinary that hardly anyone perceives it.  Classical odes grow from and or because, romantic lyrics from but or if.  Immature verses expand a personal pronoun ad nauseam, the greatest works bring glory to a common verb.

Alasdair Gray, Unlikely Stories, Mostly


I picture several reviewers of my own books as passing a long future lodged between Brutus and Judas in the jaws of Satan.

Stephen Jay Gould, An Urchin in the Storm


I cannot write long books; I leave that for those who have nothing to say.

Celia Green, The Decline and Fall of Science


Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace, and wit, reminders of order, calm, and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark.  The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep, and long-lasting.  In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still, and absorbed.

Germaine Greer, Daddy, We Hardly Knew You


Books are the greatest and the most satisfactory of recreations.  I mean the use of books for pleasure.  Without books, without having acquired the power of reading for pleasure, none of us can be independent, but if we can read we have a sure defence against boredom in solitude.

Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Recreation


Poetry is the greatest literature, and pleasure in poetry is the greatest of literary pleasures.  It is also the least easy to attain and there are some people who never do attain it.

Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Recreation


Some one, I think it was Isaac Disraeli, said that he who did not make himself acquainted with the best thoughts of the greatest writers would one day be mortified to observe that his best thoughts are their indifferent ones, and it is from the great books that have stood the test of time that we shall get, not only the most lasting pleasure, but a standard by which to measure our own thoughts, the thoughts of others, and the excellence of the literature of our own day.

Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Recreation


There is much poetry for which most of us do not care, but with a little trouble when we are young we may find one or two poets whose poetry, if we get to know it well, will mean very much to us and become part of ourselves … The love for such poetry which comes to us when we are young will not disappear as we get older; it will remain in us, becoming an intimate part of our own being, and will be an assured source of strength, consolation, and delight.

Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Recreation


Many a young person tells me he wants to be a writer.  I always encourage such people, but I also explain that there’s a big difference between “being a writer” and writing.  In most cases these individuals are dreaming of wealth and fame, not the long hours alone at the typewriter.  “You’ve got to want to write,” I say to them, “not want to be a writer.”

Alex Haley, The Shadowland of Dreams


For the first time he looked into his heart and wrote, and thus for the first time he touched the hearts of others; the cold style took fire, and beneath the clumsy periods welled tears.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire


Few authors understand themselves, and a proper reader must not only understand his author but also be able to see beyond him.

Johann Georg Hamann, Briefwechsel


Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race.

Johann Georg Hamann, Sämtliche Werken


A people’s literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them.  The writings of the day show the quality of the people, as no historical reconstruction can.

Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way


Great literature, past or present, is the expression of great knowledge of the human heart.

Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way


Of course poets have morals and manners of their own, and custom is no argument with them.

Thomas Hardy, The Hand of Ethelberta


Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun


The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice-Told Tales


Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks


If I have not read a book before, it is, for all intents and purposes, new to me, whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago.

William Hazlitt, Men and Manners: Sketches and Essays


Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself.  He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else.

William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets


Poetry is the universal art of the spirit which has become free in itself and which is not tied down for its realization to external sensuous material; instead, it launches out exclusively in the inner space and the inner time of ideas and feelings.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introduction to Aesthetics


Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.

Heinrich Heine, Almansor: A Tragedy


A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book.

Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961


All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

Ernest Hemingway, A Letter from Cuba


All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.

Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961


All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon


My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible.  The game of golf would lose a great deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green.  You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.

Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961


I either had to write the book or be reduced to despair; it was the only means of saving me from nothingness, chaos and suicide.  The book was written under this pressure and brought me the expected cure, simply because it was written, irrespective of whether it was good or bad.  That was the only thing that counted.

Hermann Hesse, Journey to the East


These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.  From each of them goes out its own voice, as inaudible as the streams of sound conveyed by electric waves beyond the range of our hearing; and just as the touch of button on our stereo will fill the room with music, so by opening one of these volumes, one can call into range a voice far distant in time and space, and hear it speaking, mind to mind, heart to heart.

Gilbert Highet, The Immortal Profession:  The Joys of Teaching and Learning


It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost enirely in the study of literature, and so I believe that the splendor of historical writing is to be cherished with the greatest delight and given the pre-eminent and most glorious position.

Henricus Huntendunensis, Historia Anglorum


A good sentence is a key.  It unlocks the mind of the reader.

Eric Hoffer, Eric Hoffer and the Art of the Journal


Good writing, like gold, combines lustrous lucidity with high density.  What this means is good writing is packed with hints.

Eric Hoffer, Eric Hoffer and the Art of the Journal


How rare it is to come across a piece of writing that is unambiguous, unqualified, and also unblurred by understatements or subtleties, and yet at the same time urbane and tolerant.

Eric Hoffer, Eric Hoffer and the Art of the Journal


Good literature continually read for pleasure must, let us hope, do some good to the reader:  must quicken his perception though dull, and sharpen his discrimination thought blunt, and mellow the rawness of his personal opinions.

A.E. Houseman, The Name and Nature of Poetry


Writing a novel is actually searching for victims.  As I write I keep looking for casualties.  The stories uncover the casualties.

John Irving,Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews


Letters are signs of things, symbols of words, whose power is so great that without a voice they speak to use the words of the absent; for they introduce words by the eye, not by the ear.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae


One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers.  I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these the millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letter that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends.  Even my mother scolded me:  “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days.  Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”

Shirley Jackson, Come Along with Me


Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error —
Nothing to do with merit.

Clive James, The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered


Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it.  If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.  There is no author’s name on the title page, merely a modest like of italic type advising us that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev’s “short biography” has been composed “by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, CPSU Central Committee.”  This is the one statement in the entire opus which is undeniably true.  Only an Institute could write like this.

Clive James, From the Land of Shadows


Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory.  In many respects Rilke was a prick.

Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs


A poem is sort of an onion of contexts, and you can no more locate any of the important meanings exclusively in a part than you can locate a relation in one of its terms.  The significance of a part may be greatly modified or even in extreme cases completely reversed by later and larger parts and by the whole.

Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co.


Human life without some form of poetry is not human life but animal existence.

Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age


If my tone is mocking, the tone of someone accustomed to helplessness, this is natural:  the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast — and as someone said, “If you’re going to hang me, you mustn’t expect to be able to intimidate me into sparing your feelings during the execution.”

Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age


One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all.  I picture to myself that reader — that non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame:  “Our poems are too hard for him.”  But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever.

Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age


People always ask:  For whom does the poet write? He needs only to answer, For whom do you do good?  Are you kind to your daughter because in the end someone will pay you for being?

Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age


When language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself.

Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age


Instead of blaming language for failing to capture our thoughts, maybe we should thank it for giving some shape to the muddle in our heads.

Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language


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