Like a lot of people, I typically read with a pencil nearby – just in case a sentence, phrase or paragraph demands to be remembered.  I usually find it’s not what the author says, but how the author says it that matters most.   They’ve strung the right words together and struck the right tone.  Some other author may have said the exact same thing, but not with the same style or acumen. If it’s really good, I’ll eventually copy the damn thing down somewhere.  It is no surprise that essays offer the richest source of quotable material.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Concerning Technology / Progress / Materialism

“Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings” – Aldo Leopold; A Sand County Almanac


“With the disappearance of the gas mantle and the advent of the short circuit, man’s tranquility began to be threatened by everything he put his hands on.” – James Thurber; Sex Ex Machina


“Sirs, I have tested your machine. It adds a new terror to life and makes death a long-felt want.” – Attributed to Herbert Beerbohm Tree


“The technology, which in our culture, has released urban and even rural man from the quiet before his hearth log has debauched his taste.  Man no longer dreams over a book in which a soft voice, a constant companion, observes, exhorts or sighs with him through the pangs of youth and age.  Today he is more likely to sit before a screen and dream the mass dream which comes from outside.”  – Loren Eiseley; Strangeness in the Proportion


“As our common complexities increase, any tale of individual simplicity (and Walden is the best written and cockiest) acquires a new fascination; as our goods accumulate, but not our well-being (Thoreau’s) report of an existence without material adornment takes on a certain awkward credibility.” -E.B. White, Walden


“Outside the few urban industrial areas in Greece, it is still possible to build and conduct life without benefit of technicians, specialists and explainers, bureaucrats, middlemen, and other modern experts.  This means that there is possible an understanding of, a connection with, and a lack of technological mystification to many of the elements, objects, and products commonly lived with in any day. … therefore, it is possible that the unhappy peevishness and dissatisfaction on the face of the pretty tourist comes in part from a life of being left out of the knowledge of the intricate details of the complete cycle of any single thing she is able to consume.  Including the country of Greece.” – Alice Bloom, On a Greek Holiday


 “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”  -E.B. White, Coon Hunt


“Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.” -Lewis Mumford


“Taken altogether, the things that mattered a great deal to me when I was a child are very few when I compare them to the overloaded tables and overcrowded shelves though which children today have to thread their way.  Only if they are very fortunate will they be able to weave together into memories the ill-assorted mass of gadgets, toys, and easily forgotten objects, objects without a past or a future, and piles of snapshots that will be replace by new brightly colored snapshots next year.” -Margaret Mead, Home and Travel

Concerning Reading / Writing / Books

“Why should children understand everything they read?  Why should anyone?  Does anyone?  I don’t, and I never did.” – John Holt, How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading


“Everywhere I go I am asked if I think the universities stifle writers.  My opinion is they don’t stifle enough of them.  There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” -Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction


“It is like cycling, reading is.  Can you feel the air, the pure passage of the spirit, past the exposed skin?” -William Gass, On Reading to Oneself


The printed, bound and paid-for book was – still is, for the moment – more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both.  It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.”  -John Updike, The End of Authorship


“Poetry disappeared long ago, even for most intellectuals; each year fiction is a little less important.  Our age is the age off articles: we buy articles in stores, read articles in magazines, exist among the interstices of articles: of columns, interviews, photographic essays, documentaries; of facts condensed into headlines or expanded into non-fiction best-sellers; of real facts about real people.” -Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket


“For the past couple of years we’ve all been witness to a furious debate about the literary canon.  What books should be assigned to students? What books should critics discuss? What books should the rest of us read, and who are ‘we’ anyway?…[But] something is being overlooked: the state of reading, and books, and literature in our country at this time.  Why, ask yourself, is everyone so hot under the collar about what to put on the required-reading shelf?  It is because  while we have been arguing so fiercely about which books make the best medicine, the patient has been slipping deeper and deeper into a coma….In America today the assumption underlying the canon debate is that the books on the list are the only books that are going to be read, and if the list is dropped no books are going to be read.” -Katha Pollitt, Does a Literary Canon Matter?


“Where they burn books, in the end they will also burn people.” -Heinrich Heine

Concerning Knowledge / Education / Wisdom

 “Not long ago a teacher told me that her best students feel it is no longer necessary to write anything.  She said they think that everything can be done with figures, and that what can’t be done with figures isn’t worth doing.  I think this is a natural belief for a generation that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery.” -Flannery O’Connor, The Teaching of Literature


“Human nature loses its most precious quality when it is robbed of its sense of things beyond, unexplored and yet insistent.  Learning is sensible, straightforward and clear if only you keep at bay the suggestiveness of things.” -Alfred North Whitehead


“Education!  Which of the various me’s do you propose to educate and which do you propose to suppress?” -D.H. Lawrence


“We are accustomed to live in hopes of good weather, a good harvest, a nice love affair, hopes of becoming rich or getting the office of chief of police, but I’ve never noticed anyone hoping to get wiser.” -Anton Chekhov


“The day the Christmas angel fainted and had to be carried out by one of the Wise Men was educational in the highest sense of the term.” -E.B. White, Education



Concerning Memory

“…memory sets before us, not what we choose, but what it pleases.  Indeed, there is nothing that imprints a thing so vividly on our memory as the desire to forget it.” -Montaigne

“It is a funny thing what the brain will do with memories and how it will treasure them and finally bring them into odd juxtaposition with other things, as though it wanted to make a design, or get some meaning out of them, whether you wanted it or not, or even see it.” – Loren Eiseley, The Bird and the Machine

“But memory, though vivid, is imprecise, without sure dimensions…”- Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

“But no memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory.” -Patricia Hampl, Memory And Imagination


“I recall kneeling on my (flattish) pillow at the window of a sleeping care…and seeing with an inexplicable pang a handful of fabulous lights that beckoned me from a distant hillside, and then slipped into a pocket of black velvet: diamonds that I later gave away to my characters to alleviate the burden of my wealth.” -Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory




“When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process normally referred to as growing up is  not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the thing children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living.”- Aldo Leopold; A Sand County Almanac


“There would never be a moment, in war or in peace, when I wouldn’t trade all the patriots in the country for one tolerant man.” -E.B. White, Coon Hunt


“Suppose you attend to the suggestions which the moon makes for one month, commonly in vain, will it not be very different from anything in literature or religion?” -Henry David Thoreau, Night and Moonlight

“Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.” -Arthur C. Clarke


“…most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences – things altogether of the mind.  For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train.  Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures.” – G.K. Chesterton, On Running After One’s Hat


“‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'” -G.K. Chesterton



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