The Most Important Book I Ever Read

I wish I could say it was something grand that I can look back upon with pride: maybe the Bible, or Hamlet, or In Our Time, or the Divine Comedy, or Gatsby, or The Confessions, or Lord of the Rings, or the tales of Poe and Doyle and Lovecraft. But although I would cite all of them as my favorites and each is important to me, I’ve finally come to terms with a simple fact: the most important book I ever read is this:

And, yes, I read it. All of it, sometime between the ages of 13 and 15. There’s no denying that it’s kind of a shabby replacement for actual reading, but the simple fact is this: the Fifteenth Edition of Barlett’s Familiar Quotations got me at the right time and made me fall in love with words and literature and the well-turned phrase. It explains my early affection for aphoristic writers like Wilde and Bierce, and my current affection for Lewis and Chesterton.

It also did what such a book should do: it set me off exploring the world of writing, and I never stopped.

Some quotes, cut loose from their context, were mysteriously evocative in a way that made me want to know more. For example, the phrase “I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice,” in the Shakespeare section, just seemed strange, but when I sought out its placement, I was introduced not to any kind of real monster, but to a comical figure named Bottom. Bartlett’s was the very first time I encountered the Greek poets, playwrights and philosophers; Chaucer; Matthew Arnold; Ben Jonson; the Romantic and metaphysical poets; and the early 20th century American authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe.

It introduced me to writers I’d never encountered, and sent me chasing after the complete work. (To this day, I have a madness for “complete editions” of authors, which is served well by Kindle.) Wilde’s wit, Whitman’s chant, the effortless beauty of Yeats, the muscular prose-poetry of passages of Melville, and the majestic cadences of Lincoln: a few pages of cut diamonds hinting at a vast mine just waiting to be excavated. Barlett’s was a spark, and as Dante wrote, “A great flame follows a little spark” (page 142, quote #10).

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink books, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature served a similar purpose: they introduced me to new writers, and I began a habit that never really left me of haunting used bookstores. It wasn’t enough to learn that Lovecraft thought M.R. James wrote a ripping good ghost story: I had to find every M.R. James book I could lay hands upon: not always an easy task in early 1980s suburbia.

Sometimes a book isn’t great in and of itself. It’s great because it sends you searching for true greatness.

Bartlett’s was still pretty strong in the 15th edition, but the slide had already begun under the editorship of Emily Morison Beck. Janis Joplin groaning “Down on me, down on me / Looks like everybody in this whole round world / Is down me” really doesn’t rise to the level of Wordsworth (“That best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / of kindness and of love”) or Wilde (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”).

Things continued to get worse under editor Justin Kaplan, who combined the worst traits of a provincial ideologue (he admitted to loathing Ronald Reagan and deliberately mishandled the Reagan section to make him look foolish) and tin-eared trend chaser (the pop-culture references he included are of disputable durability). Exchanging the sublime Alexander Pope for Mick Jagger is no one’s idea of an improvement.

Bartlett’s quotes were supposed to be for the ages, not the moment. A well-read populace would have been able to summon certain phrases and lines from memory. Any schoolchild up until 30-odd years ago would have been able to tell you who wrote “This is the forest primeval” or “These are the times that try men’s souls.” They knew them because they are words that endured, and they endured because they evoke greatness and resonate with deep meaning. “I can’t get no satisfaction” is a fine thing to hum along to in the car, but it doesn’t really hint at hidden depths, does it?

I’d forgotten the impact of Bartlett’s on my reading habits until the Bartlett Familiar Quotations app landed on my iPhone. It’s slightly crashy, but overall it’s a effective port of the 18th edition. Since that book lists for $50, the app lists for $4, and the app appears to be the complete contents of the full edition (both editions boast “20,000 quotes”), that’s a pretty good deal.

The app opens on a random quote of the day, and you can save favorites into various folders. The text is fully searchable by author, topic, publication, or word, but it would benefit from more robust search features, including a date search and chronological index. The social sharing feature is quite nice: you can save out a quote as an image, or even create a quote with a custom background image for instant literary memes, like this:

All of these items are fully integrated with social sharing features, which sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. In keeping with the new editions of Bartlett’s, there’s still pointless trend chasing. I like Harry Potter as well as the next person who’s not Michael O’Brien, but does this really stand with the immortals?

Overall, however, it’s hard to gripe. If later editions are weaker than the series was in its golden age, there’s still enough of the Bartlett goodness undergirding the whole operation to make it worth your four bucks.

Bartlett’s is a book you need to find at the right age. You consume it and it powers your journey to greater things. I like having it to hand so I can flip through for some quick inspiration, hunt down a citation, or just push out a quick quote for Twitter or Facebook. It doesn’t have the particular influence that The Confessions, or Shakespeare, or Look Homeward, Angel, or even the early novels of Stephen King had on me. Those influence run deep and change the way I look at the world and, as a writer, approach my work.

Bartlett’s is more like a stone skipping across the surface. It shows you some beautiful ripples, and hints and the wonderful depths below, mysterious and waiting to be explored.