Thought hooks

I am not sure how my interest in quotations began. In youth I looked for credos. I can remember tacking up over my desk the credo of Walt Whitman (''take off your hat to no man''), which a college roommate had discovered in the preface to the second edition of ''Leaves of Grass.'' I began to find them in newspaper columns as fillers and on certain kinds of calendars. At that early time, if you gave me a quotation, any quotation, I would give it respectful attention. To this day I am unable to pass a quote on a church bulletin board without reading it. I am looking for something, some perfect expression. Now I am old enough to know that what I am looking for is actually a neater version of my own jumbled thoughts.

In 1960 I began to be more orderly in my attention to quotations. As a teacher I had a blackboard behind me, and it was clear that many of my students were not exactly set on fire by the niceties of English instruction. I collected quotations on little cards and had a student copy one of them on the board each day. The practice assured me that a bored kid would not be leaving the class entirely empty-handed. There they stood silently on the board behind me.

I tried to challenge my students (''physiognomy is destiny'') or to amuse them (''the best way to keep your friends is not to give them away''). Two selection rules governed: They should not be moralistic statements (''it's always later than you think''), they should not be sentimentally obvious (''I sorrowed that I had no shoes until I saw a man with no feet''). In 13 years I collected some 700 of them and when I retired left my hoard with another teacher who was also a collector.

Before I left I went through my haul and picked out 40 that I liked, jammed them onto a single sheet, and from my touring retirement van passed the sheets out to hitchhikers and others in imitation of Johnny Appleseed. Two favorites from that elite list: ''This time, like all other times, is the best time, if we but knew what to do with it'' and ''If you eat cherries with your superiors, you get the pits in your eyes.''

There are attendant hazards in being a collector. You can become a champion bore to friends. Chesterton once had a character in a play speak nothing but quotations. The audience howled every time he opened his mouth. Fortunately, as easily as they flow into the mind, they also flow out.

A few words about the kinds of quotations - sayings, saws, adages, mottos, proverbs, aphorisms, epigrams. These have in common two things, brevity and an observation on human behavior. The above group can be further divided into two - the common sayings we have heard many times (''a stitch in time . . .'') and those which for lack of a better word we might call profound or witty (''the past is not dead; it isn't even past''). This last group should be dealt with in more detail.

Heavy pronouncements: Here you can almost feel the writer pounding on the table for emphasis. (''It is well known that evils are alleviated by the fact that we bear them in common. People seem to regard boredom as one of these and therefore get together in order to be bored in common.'')

The bitter downers: ''It takes your enemy and your friend working together to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.'' ''I can protect me from my enemies but God protect me from my friends.''

Thank goodness I am not as others: ''Commonplace people have an answer for everything and nothing surprises them.''

Imagination working on small detail: ''When you observe an animal closely you feel as if a human being sitting inside were making fun of you.''

Men and women: ''Women have theatrical exteriors and practical interiors, men the reverse.''

Dry: ''As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.''

Puns: ''One man's Mede is another man's Persian.''

I have a special place in my heart for folk, or country, talk: ''Rules for right living: Never eat at a restaurant called Mom's; never play cards with a man named Doc.'' ''Stuck tighter than a mouse in a molasses barrel.'' ''It's OK, but I wouldn't order it in a restaurant.'' ''Noisy as a cookstove falling downstairs.''

Of all quotations my favorites might be these: ''Never underestimate people's intelligence but never overestimate their information.'' ''People are not against you. They are merely for themselves.''

What is the appeal of these small strings of words? My guess is that we constantly seek illuminations, clarities. These lollipops of language can sum up our feelings, can give mysterious comfort. Perhaps it is that our senses are so active, our minds so busy that we seek little islands of certainty, small thought hooks that say what is on our minds better than we can ourselves. A quotation is a kind of verbal template. It can be a lazy man's substitute for thinking, or a baseball bat for a pedant. But often and often they make us smile , open a door, comfort the worried. The world would be poor indeed without them.

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