Great Thoughts In Small Sound Bites

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SIR Winston Churchill once remarked, " `Bartlett's Familiar Quotations' is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations, when engraved upon the memory, give you good thoughts."

The quote can, of course, be found in "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations."

Churchill was partial to large, majestic "good thoughts," and he might well wonder at the inclusion in the latest Bartlett's of such unmajestic quotations as:

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"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog cryin' all the time" (Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller).

"Me want cookie" (Cookie Monster).

"Come on baby, light my fire" (The Doors).

"Beam me up, Scotty" (Anonymous Star Trek fan).

Or even "Read my lips: No New Taxes" (George Bush).

Then again, Churchill didn't live in an age of one-liners. And his was not an era when wisdom had to be distilled into 10-second sound bites for the evening news in order to have a chance for immortality.

Call it naive, but the appeal for Churchill and for many of us who are devotees of Bartlett's compendium is not that it is new and hip but that it is classic - that it contains, in capsule form at least, "the best that is known and thought in the world" (Matthew Arnold).

Of course, the 16th edition is still largely built around the old core. But even the slightest tendency to base inclusion on popular usage rather than merit sets off a small alarm and can make a Bartlett's enthusiast reexamine what this reference book has meant over the years.

My own Bartlett's, the 13th edition published in 1955, is older than the youngest living person quoted in the new edition (Michael Jackson, born in 1958). It followed me all through school, and then served a second round of duty for my daughter. Its turquoise dust jacket is torn and taped. Faded slips of paper mark the pages of favorite quotes by writers ranging from Chekhov to Emily Dickinson. But however tattered, it serves as a reminder of a period when the world still had space and time for the luxur y of a fully developed thought or idea.

The new edition, with its handsome dark-green dust jacket, reflects the fast-paced tempo of the 1990s, when the credo for any writer or speaker seems to be, "Say it quick, say it slick." It also reflects the personal preferences of editor Justin Kaplan, who has admitted publicly, "I don't happen to like books of great thoughts at all."

What would Churchill say to that?

In his own defense, Mr. Kaplan could always invoke Goethe: "All intelligent thoughts have already been thought." Or he could quote Shakespeare: "Brevity is the soul of wit." How else but by being brief could he have removed 245 contributors and had space to add 340?

Pop culture has its place. Still, faced with the old question - "What would you take if you were stranded on a desert isle?" - I would probably choose my tattered centennial edition, with its more leisurely pace, its less staccato tone. An old dictionary or book of quotations is, after all, like a favorite pair of slippers - comfortable, if a bit shabby.

A reference book exists as a defiant act of stability in a world that defines itself largely by change. Authorities speaking confidently out of a tradition, like Webster constructing his dictionary or Voltaire organizing his encyclopedia - or Bartlett - are a vanishing species. Reference books, by necessity, have become a collaborative act of committees, reflecting a consensus of the moment. Something in the nature of a reader - ourselves at our quirkiest - resists group culture.

Do I keep my vintage Bartlett partly out of nostalgia, like a photo of the neighborhood of my childhood to remind me of simpler times when boundaries seemed firmer and clearer? My old Bartlett tells me, "Nothing endures but change" (Heraclitus). Could Andy Warhol have said it better? But it also has advised Churchill and me to "think continually of those who are truly great" (Stephen Spender). This lasting power of the word to put fire into the heart of a reader is what Bartlett-quoters finally cherish, even if the quotations "engraved upon the memory" have been reduced to sound-bite size.

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