Excerpts From A Commonplace Book

Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat — these words have been drained of all but shreds of meaning. I like to read just about any essayist, as long as they:

  • Actually have real thoughts and conclusions
  • Don’t succumb to mindless ideology, often found at the loony fringes
  • Don’t obtusely ignore the lessons of history.
  • Avoid pointless self-aggrandization while vilifying other writers.
  • Acknowledge personal limitations; a little self-deprecation always helps.

Okay, now that I’ve eliminated three-quarters of the internet’s torrent of words, allow me to introduce a writer whom I found to be perceptive, well-educated, and a damn good writer. His name is George Scialabba. This essay (in PDF format) deals with a wide range of subjects, including depression and political philosophy. The link:

Divided Mind

For several years George Scialabba has been making entries in a commonplace book, just a growing notebook where short passages and sentences can be recorded for future reference. I’ve cherry-picked a few of my favorites from his commonplace book, leaving out the French and Latin entries, as I’m monolingual.

  • It would be subversive of all human civilized society if the female population … were imbued with the idea that they might safely indulge in unchaste intercourse without fear of any of the consequences such intercourse entails upon them.

    Sir George Jessel, Master of the Rolls, 1880, depriving Annie Besant of custody of her daughter because of her authorship of a birth control pamphlet.

  • Mental work, labor in the higher regions of the mind, is one of the most strenuous kinds of human effort. The quality that above all deserves the greatest glory in art is courage; courage of a kind of which common minds have no conception. … To plan, dream, and imagine fine works is a pleasant occupation, to be sure. It is like smoking magic cigars, like leading the life of a courtesan who pleases only herself. The work is then envisaged in all the grace of infancy, in the wild delight of its conception, in fragrant flowerlike beauty, with the ripe juices of the fruit savored in anticipation. Such are the pleasures of invention in the imagination. The man who can explain his design in words passes for an extraordinary man. All artists and writers posses this faculty. But to produce, to bring to birth, to bring up the infant work with labor, to put it to bed full-fed with milk, to take it up again every morning with inexhaustible maternal love, to lick it clean, to dress it a hundred times in lovely garments that it tears up again and again; never to be discouraged by the convulsions of this mad life, and to make of it a living masterpiece that speaks to all eyes in sculpture, or to all minds in literature, to all memories in painting, to all hearts in music — that is the task of execution.

    Balzac, Cousin Bette

  • One who knows that “enough is enough” always has enough.

    Tao Te Ching

  • Dr. Bourbon said, “You know, boy, these young kids come out here from the east, read Cassirer and Buber and all that stuff, they’re pretty darn sure of themselves. They think they’re mighty good. ‘Taint always so. I always make it my rule, beware of intellectual arrogance. Now take me, I’m a scholar. That’s what I’ll be hung for. But those boys, know what they are?”

    “No,” said Walker.

    “Critics!” said Bourbon in some disgust. “That means they can go around spoutin’ their own opinions all the time as much as they want, without ever havin’ to check a fact. Needn’t use the library ever.”

    Malcolm Bradbury, Stepping Westward

  • Liberty is so much latitude as the powerful choose to accord to the weak.

    Judge Learned Hand

  • … The man
    Who sold his country is here in hell; the man
    Who altered laws for money; and a father
    Who knew his daughter’s bed. All of them dared,
    And more than dared, achieved, unspeakable
    Ambitions. If I had a hundred tongues,
    A hundred iron throats, I could not tell
    The fullness of their crime and punishment.

    Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (trans. Rolfe Humphries)

  • The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights

    J. Paul Getty

  • “I hate a stupid man who can’t talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don’t like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine; but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing. … A man who would tell me that I am pretty, unless he is over seventy, ought to be kicked out of the room. But a man who can’t show me that he thinks so without saying a word about it, is a lout.”

    Violet Effingham in Phineas Finn by Trollope

  • English visitor (after Lincoln apologizes for the condition of his boots): “Why, sir, in England a gentleman never blacks his own boots.”

    Lincoln: “Indeed. Whose does he black?”

  • A long life may not be good enough, but a good life is long enough.


  • Oh, what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive!
    But when we’ve practiced quite a while,
    How vastly we’ve improved our style!

    Jim Holt

  • How many charming talents have been spoiled by the instilled desire to do “important” work! Some people are born to lift heavy weights. Some are born to juggle with golden balls.

    Max Beerbohm

  • Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.

    John Wayne

  • The horse that farts will never tire.
    The man that farts is the man to hire.

    New Hampshire proverb

Well, I’m tired of cutting and pasting. Here’s the link for the complete commonplace book — there are some real gems in it!

George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book




Filed under Words and Phrases

2 responses to “Excerpts From A Commonplace Book

  1. Joan

    I’m satisfied at present with trying to remember the shorter pithier comments. Bradbury sounds a lot like Twain. I love Lincoln’s comment. Pretty much sums up the difference between the English attitude towards common labor, and the American’s indifference to the English attitude. ( At least those that didn’t own slaves) Then there is Getty’s comment..which brings us into the Gilded and tarnished age of the robber barons. Well..there you are, Larry. I can’t divorce the comments from history..and class warfare, and soon enough I’ll be ranting about the fact that the rich are still on top and don’t have to pay taxes..and that’s politics. Politics being the one thing I can’t bear to deal with now. And so..adieu .

  2. Joan


    I was curious as to why a book containing such uncommon quotes was called a Commonplace Book. Above is the answer from Wikipedia.

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