The ABCs of My Literary Education


A collection of quotations that speak to the best of what I've learned from the books I've read.




A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.

Joan Didion



Back into the past, back into the past, as I did every time I met her, repeating the whole accumulation of the plot from the very beginning up to the last increment — thus in Russian fairy tales the already told is bunched up again at every new turn of the story.

Vladimir Nabokov



C'est d'ordinaire avec notre être réduit au minimum que nous vivons: la plupart de nos facultés restent endormies, parce qu'elles se reposent sur l'habitude qui sait ce qu'il y a à faire et n'a pas besoin d’elles.

Marcel Proust

As a rule our being is reduced to the minimum that we need to live: most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.


Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of 'psst' that you usually can't even hear because you're in such a rush to or from something important you've tried to engineer.

David Foster Wallace



Everything becomes a spiritual quest when the doer cares about doing it right or better.

John Updike



For all eternity, I forgive you and you forgive me.

William Blake



 “God, am I like the rest after all?” — So he used to think starting awake at night — “Am I like the rest?”

This was poor material for a socialist but good material for those who do much of the world’s rarest work. The truth was that for some months he had been going through that partitioning of the things of youth wherein it is decided whether or not to die for what one no longer believes. In the dead white hours in Zurich staring into a stranger's pantry across the upshine of a street-lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.

F. Scott Fitzgerald



Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to while we long to make music to melt the stars.

Gustave Flaubert



If he bathes her in sections, will the parts hold?

Toni Morrison



Jesters do oft prove prophets.

Williams Shakespeare




That twenty centuries of stony sleep 

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Williams Butler Yeats



 Les étoiles sont belles à cause d’une fleur que l’on ne voit pas.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

The stars are beautiful because of a flower that we do not see.


The Mother: The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.

Lydia Davis



nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

e.e. cummings


Oh, crowds! Loose women! Soldiers!

We will have to journey through the eyes of idiots,

open country where the docile cobras, coiled like wire, hiss,

landscapes full of graves that yield the freshest apples,

so that uncontrollable light will arrive

to frighten the rich behind their magnifying glasses-

the odor of a single corpse from the double source of lily and rat-

and so that fire will consume those crowds still able to piss around a moan

or on the crystals in which each inimitable wave is understood. 

Federico Garcia Lorca



Pictures left unfinished…are valued more than any of their finished paintings… The reason is that in these we see traces of the sketch and the original conception of the artists, while sorrow for the hand that perished at its work beguiles us into the bestowal of praise.




"Quand dois-je considérer que mon tableau est fini ?" Et le maître répondit : "Quand tu pourras le regarder avec surprise, en te disant : C'est moi qui a fait ça."

Jean-Paul Sartre

"When should I consider my painting finished?" And the master replied, "When you can look at it with surprise, saying to yourself: 'it's me who did that.' "


Remember, though I did eat a cake of cow dung once; I admire only beauty.

James Joyce



Somehow I had a premonition of what I so often felt at later times: that you did not have the right to open a single book unless you engaged to read them all. With every line you read, you were breaking off a portion of the world. Before books, the world was intact, and afterwards it might be restored to wholeness once again. But how was I, who could not read, to take up the challenge laid down by all of them?

Rainer Marie Rilke



That is what one does. One does not get better, but different and older, and that is always a pleasure.

Gertrude Stein



USURY: Everybody's looking for the job in which you never have to pay anyone their pound of flesh. Self-employed nirvana. A lot of artists like to think of themselves as uncompromising; a lot of management consultants won't tell you what they do until they've sunk five pints. I don't think anybody should give themselves air just because they don't have to hand over a pound of flesh every day at 5pm, and I don't think anyone should beat themselves with broken glass because they do. If you're an artist, well, good for you. Thank your lucky stars every evening and dance in the garden with the fairies. But don't fool yourself that you occupy some kind of higher moral ground. You have to work for that. Writing a few lines, painting a pretty picture - that just won't do it.

Zadie Smith



Vince Fusilli held up his lighter as though at a rock concert. It was the best we could do for an eternal flame.

Jeffrey Eugenides



What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.

Ta-Nehisi Coates



If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

Malcolm X



You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.

David Foster Wallace



Thanks again for saving me. Someday, I’ll save you too. 

Zelda Fitzgerald


Susannah EmersonComment