Commonplace Book - Spring 2015


By Anne Matthews | March 4, 2015


The Countess Olenska was the only young woman at the dinner; yet, as Archer scanned the smooth plump elderly faces between their diamond necklaces and towering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously immature compared with hers. It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 1920

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94

[Thomas] Middleton seems to have felt no compunction about “mutilating” his own play in copying it out for friends and patrons. One copy he made displays startling differences from the other—he was either incapable of or uninterested in making copies that were faithful to some “authoritative” version of the play but instead saw each session of copying as an opportunity for reshaping. From everything we know about the fertile brain of Shakespeare, he was equally likely to compose afresh in the act of copying. If we did possess multiple authorial manuscripts of, say, Hamlet, the textual situation of the play would likely be even more impossibly unsettled and complex than it is at the present time.

Leah S. Marcus, “The Veil of Manuscript,” Renaissance Drama, 2001

Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works: believe Christ and his Apostles that there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying.

William Blake, Milton, 1804

That black, fixed stare into which I had read a tragic meaning more than once, in which I had found a sombre seduction, was perfectly empty now. … There was something cynical in that unconcealed alteration, the true Jacobus shamelessness. I felt as though I had been cheated in some rather complicated deal into which I had entered against my better judgment.

Joseph Conrad, A Smile of Fortune, 1910

Living? Our servants do that for us.

Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Axël, 1890

Hovering over all of it is the dark romance of capital: the elegance of numbers; the kinkiness of money; the deep, rotten, erotic allure of power.

A. O. Scott, “Number Crunching at the Apocalypse,” The New York Times, 2011

“You’ve been having a queer kind of hot air puffing round you. You’ve bin blown up like a pink pig in the air fit to burst, and maybe now they’ll let you die away with a squeak like a pink pig does. Don’t let me find you one day with a hard face an’ a dirty bit of cigarette and nerves all gone to blazes, looking for this hot air again! … Mi—what’s your name, look after her! … That child’s bin written across the sky like somebody’s pills. You see she gets over it!”

Enid Bagnold, National Velvet, 1931

For my whole conduct with Negroes as I was growing up in the 1940s was a relationship of great contrasts. On the one hand there was a kind of unconscious affection, touched with a sense of excitement and sometimes pity. On the other hand there were sudden emotional eruptions—of disdain and utter cruelty. My own alternating affections and cruelties were inexplicable to me, but the main thing is that they were largely assumed and only rarely questioned. The broader reality was that the Negroes in the town were there; they were ours, to do with as we wished.

Willie Morris, North Toward Home, 1967

Virtue had died long ago within that mountain of flesh for lack of air. A priest might not be shocked by human failings, but he could be hurt or disappointed; Parkinson would welcome any kind of failing. Nothing would hurt Parkinson or disappoint him but the size of a cheque.

Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case, 1960

The larvae are two weeks older than their peers down the hill and much larger. Where before they had been grains of rice, here they are cooked rice. They live like rice, too, pressed together: a moist, solid entity. If you lower your head to within a foot or two of an infested corpse (and this I truly don’t recommend), you can hear them feeding. Arpad pinpoints the sound: “Rice Krispies.” Ron frowns. Ron used to like Rice Krispies.

Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, 2003

I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”

Lionel Trilling, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” 1961

I think people might be willing to pay for the special odor of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.

James Joyce to his publisher, 1905

“Fixed the World’s Series?” I repeated. The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947

Keep a diary and one day it’ll keep you.

Mae West

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