How to be a winning quoter

''People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.'' This insouciant thought, we hasten to admit, was lifted from our Quotations Calendar pad for 1983. We happen to have a sweet tooth for aphorisms, and the sugar plum from Logan Pearsall Smith made our day - January 3, as we recall.

We wouldn't be compelled to cite humbly our rather unscholarly source if we knew Timothy Dickinson. Mr. Dickinson happens to be in the business of supplying apt quotations for others, and he certainly would have produced this beauty on request - it so perfectly describes him.

For being a bookworm after Logan Pearsall Smith's dusty ideal, Mr. Dickinson has found himself suddenly becoming a minor celebrity, following all those years of obscurity under the old reading lamp. He has been profiled by the Wall Street Journal and interviewed on network television, looking like anmbassador in exile in his gray waistcoat and striped trousers, sporting what can only be described as a cravat.

It is pleasant to imagine Mr. Dickinson wearing this uniform as he reads a history of mathematics, a biography of Samuel Johnson, Tennyson's poems, a chronicle on canals - almost anything to build up his reserves when called upon for a learned or exotic reference. He is said to keep 10 to 15 bookmarks moving, 60 to 70 hours a week.

Among his modestly legendary exploits, Mr. Dickinson - who began by reading modern history at Oxford - has supplied the columnist George Will with a quotation from Pope Urban IV and Tom Wolfe with a bibliography on courage for his book about the astronauts, ''The Right Stuff.'' When Lewis Lapham was editor of Harper's, he kept himself well-stocked by Mr. Dickinson so that he could, with light learning, make such weighty observations as this: ''When Pythagoras established the theorem of the square upon the hypotenuse, he sacrificed 1,000 oxen to Apollo. Since then, whenever anyone has had a new idea, oxen everywhere have trembled.''

We unlettered bystanders may well struggle for the mot justem to express what the flourishing existence of Mr. Dickinson means. Clearly we live in a time with no time for reading, or so we think. How can we crack those books when we have to master that other literacy - computer literacy - and then relax with our daily five hours of TV? Yet, it seems, we would like to be thought of as well-read - to the point of paying Mr. Dickinson, like an interior decorator, to furnish us with good taste.

Does he cater dinner parties? If so, have two clients ever ended up at the same party with the same bon motm? What a scene that would be!

Mr. Dickinson, conjuring up everybody from Cicero to Mencken for the appropriate occasion, can be thought of as the ghostwriter's ghostwriter.

In a world of consultants, he is one more consultant. In a world of experts, he is one more expert.

He is the very latest in anachronisms: the generalist as specialist.

A ''literary adviser'' Mr. Dickinson calls himself. How ''literary advisers'' - total scholars - like Voltaire and Goethe could clean up in today's market! And, of course, John Stuart Mill, who learned Greek at three, promptly gobbling up his Herodotus and Plato with his gruel, to be followed by practically everything in print, from ''Don Quixote'' to Adam Smith, not neglecting the sciences (''I devoured treatises on Chemistry'').

Is Mr. Dickinson in danger of becoming the fast-food franchise of culture? Some spectators regard the well-equipped quoter as a kind of freak, like the circus strong man - performing prodigal feats for no practical purpose.

Purists - who would doubtless shred their Quotations Calendar - find those who traffic with Mr. Dickinson vaguely unethical. Buyers in an intellectual black market.

We say quotations become quotations because they're worth remembering. If Dr. Johnson were around and spouting, we might hold out for the real thing. But in these times, when the one-liner has been suffering a long, long recession, we'll take what we can get, believing, as Logan Pearsall Smith once said: ''There is one thing that matters - to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.''

You could look it up in your Bartlett's.

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