Bartlett's latest edition recognizes quoteworthiness of 340 new authors

October 22, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." -- Eleanor Roosevelt

Wrong, Eleanor. A quick chat with Justin Kaplan could send even the smuggest semanticist into what Matthew Arnold called "an iron time of doubt."

This man has read everything and everyone.

Mr. Kaplan, editor of the 16th Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, has spent two years poring over virtually every quotable quote ever written, spoken or sung -- with the power to decide what goes in and what stays out of the classic reference book.

From Ptahhotpe in the 24th century B.C. to Kermit the Frog on 20th-century TV, Mr. Kaplan has sampled snippets of thought uttered by crooks, comics, songwriters, screenwriters, scientists, statesmen, philosophers, poets . . . "the list is too long," he sighs.

But when the new Bartlett's hits stores Nov. 4, it will be Kaplan-ized.

The first Bartlett's, published in 1855, had only 258 pages of quotes, chiefly from the Bible, Shakespeare and other English writers. Bookseller John Bartlett conceived the idea to illustrate "the obligation our language owes to authors . . . for phrases" that had become household words.

Over time, the book grew to more than 1,400 pages. New editions appear about every dozen years, each under the auspices of an editor who, understandably, inserts quotes by his or her favorite authors.

By the time Mr. Kaplan, 66, got his dream job, the book was rife with Victoriana and with what he considered excessive amounts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Missing were some of the broad, multicultural and multimedia influences that had shaped our language and our world in recent years. The volume was seriously understocked, he said, in African-American and Middle-European writers, and deficient in quotes from the Talmud, Hollywood films, rock 'n' roll and contemporary comics, such as Woody Allen, who says on Page 767: "It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

Mr. Kaplan's first tasks were to prune and whittle, then to update what remained. Last, and perhaps most important, he added significantquotes of the last 12 years. It was a challenge for which Mr. Kaplan was, to say the least, well prepared.

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize (for his 1980 biography of Walt Whitman) and two National Book Awards (for the Whitman book and another on Mark Twain), Mr. Kaplan says he has been "screwing around with words" all his life. (He entered Harvard University at 16 and put together "The Dialogues of Plato" at 22.)

Although the new Bartlett's still relies on the Bible, Shakespeare, and the all-time favorite literary and poetic classics, 340 authors appear for the first time, including Toni Morrison, Bob Marley, M.F.K. Fisher, Vaclav Havel, Stephen Hawking, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul Tillich. In some cases, Mr. Kaplan says, he inserted quotes that "no normal man or woman would go around spouting, but which are essential for understanding our century." On Page 760, for example, is a complex, six-line sentence from "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids in Nature," written in 1963 by scientists James Watson and Frances Crick. "That one sentence, about the structure of the double helix," he says, "represents a turning point in 20th-century science. I put it in . . . because it is historically important."

He put in Hermann Goering's directive for the "final solution of the Jewish problem" and Otis Ray Bowen's 1987 "Statement on AIDS" for the same reason.

Neither Bill Clinton nor Al Gore have made it into Bartlett's. But in as a footnote is Dan Quayle's public mangling of the United Negro College Fund slogan: "What a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is very wasteful."

And George Bush is quadruply immortalized with "voodoo economics," "a thousand points of light," "read my lips" and "a kinder, gentler nation."

Mr. Kaplan, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, novelist Anne Bernays, says from the moment his name was announced as editor, letters started coming from friends and strangers who suggested their own public utterances be inscribed.

"Ministers sent me their sermons, author friends sent lists of suggested quotes, with their own writing subtly sandwiched in. All sorts of well-known figures asked to be included.

"I'm not naming names," Mr. Kaplan says. "But a lawyer in Beverly Hills kept writing to me on behalf of his client, comedian Richard Lewis. They wanted me to credit him with 'a date from hell.' They sent me videotapes, audiotapes, clippings. I resisted because my research showed that the expression was really a catch phrase used on college campuses in the '50s and '70s."

People of note

* Margaret Thatcher: "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman."

* Nelson Algren: "Never play cards with any man named 'Doc.' Never eat at any place called 'Mom's.' And never, ever, no matter what else you do in your life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own."

* Rosa Parks: "I had felt for a long time that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so."

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