• Robert Birnbaum

Not Bartlett's Quotations...My Commonplace Book

Updated: Nov 26, 2018

Marten van Valckenborch – Tower of Babel.1600

Any one who tries to create or make things, eventually comes to understand, as Albert Einstein remarked, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. A commonplace book is a personal record of those thoughts and sayings that we come across that resonate .This practice of keeping compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history has a long history from Marcus Aurelius and Petrarch to Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson to HL Menken to George Scialabba... It should obvious, mine is necessarily a work-in-progress...



François de La Rochefoucauld

"To try to be wise, all on one's own, is sheer folly" François de La Rochefoucauld



Susan Sontag

Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. Susan Sontag


St. John Chrysostom

Where there is a dance, there also is the Devil. St. John Chrysostom



Leonardo Sciascia

Even true things shouted from loudspeakers start to sound like lies. Leonardo Sciascia


Virginia Woolf

"Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?" Virginia Woolf


William Blake

" Exuberance is beauty." William Blake


George Bernard Shaw

"My definition of socialism, in ten words:Every adult deserves interesting work and a secure, modest livelihood." George Bernard Shaw


Flannery O’Connor

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Flannery O’Connor


James Baldwin

"People cannot bear too much reality, they need fantasy, in order to survive." James Baldwin


"He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” Raymond Chandler


William Faulkner

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." William Faulkner


Arundhati Roy

"Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead." Arundhati Roy


Abbie Hoffman

"We were young, we were arrogant, we were irreverent, we were foolish. But we were right." Abbie Hoffman


Albert Einstein

"Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters." Albert Einstein


Charles Bukowski

“We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”
― Charles Bukowski



“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence" Hanlon’s Razor (The Jargon File)


Jasper Johns

"You just take something, and then you do something to it, and then you do something else to it. Keep doing this and pretty soon you’ve got something.” Jasper Johns


John Le Carre

I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth…They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured,we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats. John Le Carre Russia House


Langston Hughes

"I am so tired of waiting, Aren't you, For the world to become good And beautiful and kind?" Langston Hughes


Martin Amis (photo Robert Birnbaum)

All writing, is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” Martin Amis


Lily Tomlin

"The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat." Lily Tomlin


Frederick Douglas

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning, they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will ...the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress" Frederick Douglas


F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald



Nelson Algren


"Never play cards with a a man named Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own" Nelson Algren

Anatole France

"The majestic equality of laws forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread" Anatole France,


Dorothy Parker

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to" Dorothy Parker


G. K.Chesterton

"Journalism largely consists in saying 'Lord Jones Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was aliv" G. K.Chesterton


Georges Clemenceau

"My son is twenty-two years old. If he had not become a Communist at twenty-two I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at thirty, I will do it then." Georges Clemenceau


Otto von Bismarck

The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they'll sleep at night. -- Otto von Bismarck


Amy Bloom (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

"To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies. No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever." Amy Bloom


Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.--Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet),


Raymond Chandler


Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” Raymond Chandler



The best is the enemy of the good.--Voltaire


George Santayana

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness when experience is not retained, as among savages , infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it....This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. George Santayana


Finley Peter Dunne

"The newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, conthrols th'ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward" Finley Peter Dunne


Eleanor Roosevelt

"Happiness is not a goal: it is a by product" Eleanor Roosevelt


Benjamin Disraeli

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Benjamin Disraeli


Mark Twain

"'Tis better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." Mark Twain


Philip Roth

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you're with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living id all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we are alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you. American Pastoral Philip Roth


Pablo Neruda

" You start dying slowly if you do not travel, if you do not read, if you do not listen to the sounds of life. You start dying slowly if you become a slave of your habits, walking every day on the same paths. You start dying slowly if you avoid to feel passions and their turbulent emotions; those which make your eyes glisten and your heart beat fast. You start dying slowly if you do not allow yourself, at least once in your lifetime, to run away from sensible advice." Pablo Neruda


Ludwig Wittgenstein

"Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.” Ludwig Wittgenstein


TH White/

“The best thing for being sad...is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, You may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then----to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.” TH White/The Once and Future King



Ivan Illich

“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is." Ivan Illich



Jean-Paul Sartre

"Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you." Jean-Paul Sartre



Thomas Paine


📷📷 Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. “ Thomas Paine 



Leonard Cohen


"There is a crack in everything , that’s how the light gets in" Leonard Cohen



Annie Dillard

I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I've come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down." Annie Dillard



Jack Kerouac


The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. – Jack Kerouac



Leonard Bernstein

We must get back to faith and hope and belief — things we’re all born with. But unfortunately we’re also born thinking we’re the center of the universe. And of all traumas, that one is the biggest and most difficult to get rid of. And the hardest principle to absorb is the Copernican one: that you’re just another speck on this planet, which is a speck in the solar system, which is a speck in the galaxy, which is a speck in the universe … which is a speck in something even bigger that we don’t have the minds to contemplate. Leonard Bernstein



Anton Chekov

"There is always a certain insolence in being well-fed, as in every aspect of power. And that element expresses itself chiefly in the well-fed preaching to the hungry. Anton Chekov


Oscar Wilde

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion—Oscar Wilde



Rainer Maria Rilke

“When a man is young he needs many, many books and when he is old he needs only a few books." Rainer Maria Rilke



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“The mark of highest originality lies in the ability to develop a familiar idea so fruitfully that it would seem no one else would ever have discovered so much to be hidden in it.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Jonathan Swift

When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him. Jonathan Swift




Nick Tosches (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Fuck this world, and fuck those who would impose their frail conceits of good and evil on it. Fuck the black man and the white, the junkie and the crusader, the philosopher and the fool. Fuck those who swagger and those who cower, those who pretend to truth and those who flee from it. Fuck the poet and the book burner, the leader and the led. Fuck God and justice and every other lie that ever held men back. Only when one set it all aflame and forsook it could one return, if only for a breath, to that time of purity when fire was the only philosophy... Nick Tosches



Maira Kalman

"I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory". Maira Kalman

Don Dellilo


"Half the world is remodeling their kitchens, half the world is starving" Don Dellilo



Jim Harrison with Rosie Birnbaum (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

"One of the most frequent comments I hear everywhere, right up there with “what’s for dinner” and “I want to be somebody” is “I don’t have time to read”, which is essentially telling you, a lifelong writer, that your profession is below that of communal spritzers and flossing, and frequent social ass scratching. Everyone has to learn over and over that at best time is seized and then you flee…" Jim Harrison


Herman Melville

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.” Herman Melville


Gil Scott- Heron

"Peace is not (merely) the absence of war It is the absence of the rumors of war and the threats of war And the preparation of war." Gil Scott- Heron



John Milton


“Those who have put out the people’s eyes,reproach them of their blindness.” John Milton



"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them. " Mark Twain


Amin Malouf


“Our ancestors derived less from life than we do, but they also expected much less and were less intent on controlling the future. We are of the arrogant generations who believe a lasting happiness was promised to us at birth. Promised? By whom?” Amin Maalouf, Orígenes, 2004






Joseph Epstein (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

"Not to read is to risk barbarizing oneself" Joseph Epstein



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