Commonplace Book - Winter 2010


By Anne Matthews | December 1, 2009


Because there was nothing in the cosmic order, no unsolved puzzle, no tailor-made niche, that necessitated the muon’s existence, the Nobel Prize–winning particle physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi greeted the discovery of the muon with a less than enthusiastic “Who ordered that?” Nevertheless, there it was.

Brian R. Greene, The Elegant Universe, 1999

“Do you not feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing that kind of scheme, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt.”

Jane Austen , Pride and Prejudice, 1813

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

C. S. Lewis , Surprised by Joy, 1955

“Why, Neddy,” Mrs. Graham said, “what a marvelous surprise. I’ve been trying to get you on the phone all morning. Here, let me get you a drink.” He saw then, like any explorer, that the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to reach his destination. . . . On he went, barefoot through the wet grass, to the Welchers’, where he found their pool was dry.

This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream.

John Cheever, “The Swimmer,” 1964

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

Emily Dickinson, (#1129)

She looks across at Nick, who is still in full flow, and these considerations are eclipsed by the sight of his left ear, which prompts the resurrection of their wedding night, or rather the morning after their wedding night, when she awoke to find herself staring in surprise into a pink whorl on the pillow alongside her. She had never studied an ear with such intimacy and intensity before; so this is marriage, she had thought.

Penelope Lively, The Photograph, 2003

If you go down to the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise
If you go down to the woods today
You’d better go in disguise.

Jimmy Kennedy, “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” 1932

Each web is a venture in cooperative predation, holding a dozen or so major spiders and many more apprentices, some scab-red and corpulent, some black marked with yellow, some solid black. Among the black-bodied spiders is one especially conspicuous type, with long graceful legs and an abdomen the size of a prune. . . . They fill the understory with high-volume webs, many of which punctuate the trap line. So we dip and duck around cities of silk, each harboring whole gangs of spiders. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the wrapped husk of an unwary herpetologist dangling in one of them.

David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, 1996

When joy surprises me, and its white gulls
Alight on my body, I see my shroud
Through my ecstasy, and so I strew
All I possess on the waves and I depart

Muhammad al-Ghuzzi, The Book of Water . . . The Book of Embers, 1982

During the repast, the natives eyed us with intense curiosity, observing our minutest motions, and appearing to discover abundant matter for comment in the most trifling occurrence. Their surprise mounted the highest when we began to remove our uncomfortable garments. . . . They felt our skin, much in the same way that a silk mercer would handle a remarkably fine piece of satin; and some went so far in their investigation as to apply the olfactory organ.

Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, 1846

Think to yourself that every day is your last; the hour to which you do not look forward will come as a welcome surprise.

Horace, Epistles, 1st century B.C.

Dear Agatha is always taking people by surprise. She was born taking people by surprise; in Goodwood Week, I believe, with an Ambassador staying in the house who hated babies. So thoroughly like her. One feels certain that she’ll die one of these days in some surprising and highly inconvenient manner; probably from snakebite on the Terrace of the House of Commons.

H. H. Munro (“Saki”), The Watched Pot, 1924

When they were within a few yards of me, the King called out “Why did you run away?—”

Shocked at a question impossible to answer, yet a little assured by the mild tone of his voice, I instantly forced myself forward, to meet him. . . . I fairly think I may reckon it the greatest effort of personal courage I have ever made.

The effort answered,—I looked up, and met all his wonted benignity of Countenance, though something still of wildness in his Eyes. Think, however, of my surprise, to feel him put both his Hands round my two shoulders, and then kiss my Cheek!

Fanny Burney, on meeting George III in Kew Gardens, February 1789



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