Monday, December 09, 2013

HOT FOR A QUOTE: A Comfy Kennel at Last

(NOTE: Wheelchairs, they was locked arm in arm/Paired off pacemakers with matchin’ alarms/Gives us jus’ one more chance/To spin one more yarn/And you know that you’re over the hill/When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill/Doin’ the old folks boogie/And boogie we will/‘Cause to us the thought’s as good as a thrill)

Epigraphs are quotes that appear in the opening pages of a book, and at the beginning of each chapter. These quotes from other sources prepare the reader for whatever journey they are about to take. An epigraph can be witty, dour, out-right strange, or just informative, much like they were in their original situation. Most often used in nonfiction, epigraphs rarely occur in fiction.

Out in the marketplace are too many quotation books, the most well known being Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The famous litter its pages saying stuff about stuff that comes in handy when you can’t think of what to say. Someone always said it better first. Following this nasty forbearer are collections by Harper and Oxford publishers, Quotations of Ronald Reagan, The Nightly Book of Positive Quotations, Quotations for Public Speakers, The Gigantic Book of Baseball Quotations, Warriors’ Words: A Dictionary of Military Quotations, and others weightier than a standard library shelf can hold safely. Each collection is used without much discrimination when all should be discriminated against.
A quote is barely a glimpse at a writer’s work. The writer needs to know what came first and what happened next before using that pithy and sublime line to open a chapter. This comes from reading well. Virginia Woolf said she couldn’t imagine reading without a pencil in hand. For those with unreliable memories and active library cards, the commonplace book is better still.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the term coming into use about 1578. A commonplace book, or book of common places, is defined as: “A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.” They were filled with anything the literate owner wished to stick between its covers: recipes, medical cures, travel tips, astrological information, how to make soap, prayers, livestock ailments, poems, and song lyrics.
Fancy autodidacts say commonplace is a translation of the Latin locus communes, means “a theme or argument of general application.” There have been many dandies among commonplace books, like those of John Milton and E. M. Forster. Two favorites are The Commonplace Book of Cookery by Robert Grabhorn (North Point Press, 1985) and John Murray’s A Gentleman’s Commonplace Book of Publishing (John Murray [Publishers] Ltd., 1996).
Now it’s your turn. Get a blank book and divide into sections according to your interests, say biology, food, architecture, and politics. The sections should be general instead of specific. Keep this by your side when reading and soon its pages will be filled with everything interesting, just right for finding the best epigraph. Note the name of the book the quote is taken from and the page number so you can do one final check it is being used as intended. Your commonplace book will put you far ahead of those losers combing through compilations, and brighten your readership as well.

Unlike its loudmouthed neighbor to the south whose bestseller lists top out at ten, Quill & Quire, Canada’s book magazine, narrows the field to five. On the top of the best books of the year is red girl rat boy by Cynthia Flood (Biblioasis, 2013). “Flood crafts characters and situations that are at once iconoclastic and vividly alive,” says the Quill. “Her concentrated and elliptical writing strips away anything extraneous, resulting in brief, sharp tales that are as densely packed as poetry, yet as subtly constructed as an impressionist painting.” Instead of wishing you, too, could get such a great review, buy a copy at your local independent bookstore or gently abuse your credit card at the publisher’s web site,

Anyone who does anything wants a copy of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), especially writers and the readers who read them. Suspicions about the arcane machinations of writing are confirmed, along with what really happens in those publishing companies owned by people we beat in World War II. Need more? For every copy purchased, an angel gets its wings. Log on to and go spend money at the independent bookstore nearest you. Next month is another year.

NEXT: Combing Out the Ticks

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