When I was in seminary, I worked as a receiver at the campus bookstore. One day, in a shipment of books from the distributor Ingraham came, unsolicited and unordered, a small paperback book entitled Quote, Unquote by Jonathan Williams. It is a small paperback compendium of quotes from the famous to the obscure, ranging from the profound to the absurd to the vulgar. The book is to Bartlett's what Boone's Farm is to Dom Perignon - a (small "d") democratic version of the idea that even the most meaningless collection of sounds might hold magic for someone who works hard enough to discover it.
In the seventeen years since I got it (it came in without a price point; occasionally, Ingraham would send along something "free" if the order was big enough, and the store supervisor told me I could have it, because it was far too vulgar to put on the shelves of a nominally Christian bookstore), the book has passed in and out of my mind and bookshelves I don't know how many times. I can remember not packing it when we moved from Virginia to Illinois in 1999, and complaining to my wife because I had lost this wonderful little book. I also remember not unpacking it when we moved in. In the spring of 2000, though, there is was, on a shelf where it didn't belong.
I have no idea where it disappeared to next, but it did, and it passed out of my mind until about three years ago, when I found it sitting on my dresser, next to our bed. Don't ask me how it got there. I put it on the shelves downstairs, but this afternoon I spied it sitting on the small shelves in our bedroom, tucked away neat as could be, even though I distinctly remember seeing it just a couple weeks ago on some shelves downstairs, where I had put it when I found it a few years back.
Whether it's the absurdity of Joe Garagiola ("What got you here will get you out of here."), the wit of Harry Truman ("Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day."), or the observation of someone named Norman Douglas ("I'd cross an Alp to see a village idiot of quality."), this book has what a real book of quotes should have - an opportunity to discover the beauty and power and, yes, magic of words.
From this little book, I have changed the quote in my sidebar to one from that most American of writers, Walt Whitman.