Quotations that we have heard a million times tend to lose their meaning; they become quoting for quotation’s sake and may not even carry the author’s original intended meaning. How many times have the serious words ‘To be, or not to be’ from Shakespeare’s Hamlet been jokingly invoked over simple decisions such as whether or not to eat pizza? And how ingrained into us is that good old first line from Jane Austen: ‘A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ from our English Literature GCSE reading of Pride and Prejudice? The best quotations are not the ones your professor tells you even before you have read the thing, nor the ones you will have to spend hours memorising for your exams.
Accordingly we move on to those unexpected moments in life when you read something that, surprisingly, profoundly affects you. Indeed, how unsuspecting I was when I was revising for Classics and found: ‘Human nature has apparently an infinite capacity for not applying what it reads to how it lives.’(Ovid Surveyed, L.P Wilkinson). It was such a true statement that I was brought out of the revision world and into the real for a moment (before I realised I had no time for that yet, with seven exams still looming). It was during this time that I also stumbled upon ‘Lips only sing when they cannot kiss,’ a beautiful and, apparently, an Ovid-inspired line from James Thomson’s poem Art.
Even whilst reading well known literature the moment might be unexpected; one example of an unsung gem is: ‘The man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving’ from Thomas Hardy. Whilst reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my English Literature AS-level this line screamed that it wanted to be noted down but we never went on to discuss it in class, and I was not able to include it in any essays. Perhaps the problem is that it relates too much to modern life; there is no context to apply to it in order to gain those treasured examination marks because it states a simple fact of human life, of the human condition. Yet this is undoubtedly what makes it resonate so strongly.
Furthermore, we may all have read The Great Gatsby and disintegrated it with our quotation selections, highlighting and memorising, but did any of us extend our Fitzgerald reading to his other novel, This Side of Paradise, in which you can find the gem of a quotation ‘They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.’? And some lines are so powerful that they bring you right into the action; ‘When things are so deeply rooted there’s no one that can tear them out (original: Cuando las cosas llegan a los centros, no hay quien las arranque)’, from Lorca’s Blood Wedding, truly makes you feel the Novia’s pain in being separated from someone she loves. The words ring bells inside readers’ hearts because they seem relevant for all of us, not because we have necessarily been through the exact same intense experiences or moments but because we have all felt that way about something before, each in our own way.
There are some quotations that like to give us advice; I am sure we have all heard the quotation ‘the world is a looking glass’ from William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but we should also take note of ‘How far more beautiful and sacred are the thoughts of the poor lad or girl…than those of the dull and world-corrupted person who rules them.’ The world and history tell us that humans learn from their mistakes and improve, so it seems curious that something Thackeray noticed with teachers and parents back in the nineteenth century is still very much relevant in our twenty-first century world. However, we have already learnt from Wilkinson that humans pay no attention to what they read. Things stand out when they ring true but this does not necessarily mean that they will trigger us to rethink and change our actions; like Roy explains, we hide behind the small things in life: ‘the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.’ (The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy). There are some things that, perhaps, we will never be able to change and authors write about them to make us realise the truth that often goes unacknowledged in everyday life, or indeed to make themselves realise the truth, as most of us seldom can follow our own advice (rephrasing of a quote from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland ). George Bernard Shaw gives us a good paradox of the human condition: ‘there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it’ from his play Man and Superman. So we learn that life is a journey, a constant struggle for a perfection that we shall never achieve, but that there is a joy to this struggle because it gives purpose and meaning to our existence.
So I would encourage all to never stop reading. Take a notebook or a scrapbook and build a little quotation dictionary so that if you are ever feeling low or in need of some advice, you can go back to those brilliant author’s sayings that once resonated with you; the quotations that you will have collected will be completely personally relevant and meaningful to you. Oh, and don’t judge a book… by the quotes picked out by your teachers or professors or, indeed, anyone else other than you… and not by its cover either.
Image attributed to David Goehring