Dwight Garner Shares From His Stash of Different Writers’ Phrases

Make your own bible. Pick and collect everything
those words and phrases that are in all of your
Reading was like an explosion for you
Trumpet from Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.
– RALPH WALDO EMERSON

For almost four decades I have kept what is called an everyday book. Here I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and films, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit in my seat; Lines that woke me up. About once a year I’ll say something that I think should be included. In the end, I mostly delete these entries.

I started keeping my everyday book when I was in high school in the 1980s. In the 1990s, while I was working as an art editor for an alternative weekly newspaper in Vermont, I typed it all into a long computer file. I moved it from desktops to laptops and now to my iPhone too. I’ve poured verbal delicacies into it, “the explosion of a trumpet,” as Emerson put it, and a bit of wisdom from my life as a reader. Yes, because I’m an underliner, a destroyer of books, and maybe you are too.

Everyday books aren’t that uncommon. Virginia Woolf kept one. Samuel Johnson too. WH Auden published his, as did the poet JD McClatchy. EM Forster was exhibited after his death. The writer David Markson wrote terse and enveloping novels that resembled everyday books. They were bird nests of facts connected to the author’s subtle interjections. For fans of the genre, many price examples come from lesser-known personalities such as Geoffrey Madan and Samuel Rogers, both Englishmen who published everyday books that are particularly generous, funny and insightful. These have become cult objects. Literary critic Christopher Ricks said of Rogers that while he may not have been a kind man, “he was very good at hearing what was being said.”

In my everyday book I keep things in practical categories: “Food”, “Conversation”, “Social class”, “Travel”, “Politics”, “Cleanliness”, “War”, “Money”, “Clothes”, ” Etc. I use it as an aide-mémoire, a kind of external hard drive. It helps me stave off what Christopher Hitchens quotes, citing a friend named CRAFT (I can’t remember an F-thing) syndrome. I use my gleanings in my own writing. Like Montaigne, I only quote others “to better express myself”. Montaigne compared quoting well to arranging other people’s flowers. Sometimes, I sense, I quote too often in the reviews I write for the New York Times, swinging on quotes as if from vine to vine. It is one of the curses to spend a lifetime as a word eater and maintain a reliable memory.

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