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  • Published 2.02.07

The Times Quotations: From Homer to Homer Simpson Times, £12.06

A book of quotations is god’s gift to a hack. What greater joy than to embellish one’s prose with borrowed lines? A book of quotations is also the ill-read person’s saviour. As Winston Churchill — who seldom quoted but is always quoted — said, “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.” It is often also good for an educated man because a good quotation often leads to a good book. As Samuel Johnson said, a good quotation is the “parole of literary men”.

This tome brings together 12,000 quotations, ranging from the epigram to the paragraph-long rant. Each one of them is memorable. It is surprising that of the millions of words written and spoken everyday, how few are actually worth remembering.

One of James Thurber’s characters refused to buy a copy of Hamlet because she said that having flipped through it, she had discovered that it was full of quotations. There can be very little doubt that the Bard will be very high on, if not at the very top of, the most-quoted-authors list. The Authorized Version, Oscar Wilde, Churchill and Groucho Marx would also be jostling to be on the top rungs.

This book is arranged subject-wise and alphabetically. Thus one moves effortlessly from Absence to Youth. There are no entries under Q — thus no quotations on quotations. Nor is there any entry under Z. It is difficult, indeed, to believe that nobody had anything memorable to say about the Zoo and Zebras.

Every page has more than one gem. I opened the book at random. The subject was Political Slogans. The first entry read, “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end.’’ I turned the pages to Politics, and one of the entries there was the following: “If John Major was drowning, his whole life would pass in front of him and he wouldn’t be in it.” This putdown came from Dave Allen, an Irish comedian. It deserves to stand next to Churchill’s “An empty taxi drew up in front of 10 Downing Street and out of it emerged Clement Attlee.”A bonus is the introduction by Philip Howard, each sentence of which is eminently quotable.