Herb Stein's Unfamiliar Quotations

May 16 1997 3:30 AM

Herb Stein's Unfamiliar Quotations

On money, madness, and making mistakes.

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By Herbert Stein

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(1,184 words; posted Thursday, May 15; to be composted Thursday, May 22)

I love to browse through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It may be lazy of me, but I like to taste the plums of many authors whose full puddings I cannot digest. For example, I cannot make anything of T.S. Eliot in his entirety. But I know that I am in the presence of genius when I read the following lines from The Wasteland:

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water.

Of course, some of these nuggets are ambiguous. Thus, we have Swedish Count Axel Oxenstierna writing in the 17th century, "Behold, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed." For a long time I thought that this was a complaint that the world is not governed with more wisdom. Recently I have come to think it means that not much wisdom is required to govern the world.

As recompense--small though it be--for the pleasure I have got from Bartlett, I am setting down a few quotations (with explanations where necessary) that have resonated with me and are not included in that book.

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If you meet a madman who says that he is a fish and that we are all fishes, do you take off your clothes to show him that you do not have fins?

--Milan Kundera, Risibles Amours, 1984

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