Friday, April 24, 2009
The Quotable Author
A few days ago, I was flipping through a favorite book to find a passage I especially love. It made me think I need to keep what is referred to as "a commonplace book." A commonplace book is: "A personal journal in which quotable passages, literary excerpts, and comments are written" (The American Heritage Dictionary). You sometimes come across the term in older novels or biographies of historical figures.
I already keep something like a modern version of the commonplace book. It's just a computer file where I keep favorite quotes or passages from books I love. (Unfortunately, more often than not, I don't take the time to add a favorite passage, and so I still find myself thumbing through books.) I began this habit after attending a play with a line I wanted to remember. It's from the Arthur Miller play The Last Yankee:
"We are in this world and you're going to have to find some way to love it. . . . I'll say it again, because it's the only thing that's kept me from going crazy--you just have to love this world."
Sometimes my favorite quotations from books are first person passages that so perfectly capture a character's speech that the character comes alive. It's like she's standing next to you, telling you her story. One such character is Ellen Foster, the young motherless heroine of Kaye Gibbons novel of the same name, who wants to adopt a mother:
"Now I had accumulated $166 dollars to offer my new mama-to-be. That is not a fortune, but you don't find many girls with that much cash to offer up front for room, board, and some attention. I figured it would let her know right away that I mean business."
Another beloved passage is from my all-time favorite novel, The Song of the Lark, about the struggles and artistic growth of Thea Kronborg, a determined and talented minister's daughter from Colorado who matures into a great artist and opera singer. Here, following one of her performances, her former piano teacher, Harsanyi, is asked about her:
"Yes, Harsanyi. You know all about her. What's her secret?"
Harsanyi rumpled his hair irritably and shrugged his shoulders.
"Her secret? It is every artist's secret,"--he waved his hand,--"passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials."
Granted, I don't entirely agree with Harsanyi. I think great artistry is a result of talent and hard work as well as passion. But I still love the line, especially the declaration that passion is "inimitable in cheap materials."
What are some of your favorite passages from books? Do you have a favorite quote or piece of dialog?