One of the best things about reading a lot is coming across some passage or turn of phrase that sums things up in a way that hadn’t occurred to you before. Some of them, like the quote from Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, are the kind of thing that really turn your world upside down. Others, like the passage from Amis’s Lucky Jim sum up little moments in life in a way that I wish I only wish I could. Each comes from a work that I think is worth reading as a whole, since it’s rare that someone comes up with one good line without a bunch of others to set it up. And so, in no particular order…
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1. Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
This is, as far as I am concerned, the absolute finest line in the history of hardboiled detective fiction:
The eighty-five-cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.
2. George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
My mom sent me a copy of this book when I was working as a bike messenger and living on day old bread. I really found this passage comforting.
It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.
3. Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
A friend lent me a copy of this a couple of years ago and I just couldn’t put it down. Lahiri is an absolute master of taking the little details of life and making them strange and beautiful.
Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.
4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I find I’m always sharing this quote with friends, especially in periods when things are going badly. I usually try to disguise the source, since people tend to be a bit hesitant about taking life advice from a book about hobbits.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
I know it’s sort of bad form to include two quotes from the same series, but I love this particular line. It comes when Aragorn is deciding that he and two of his comrades are going to try to chase down about 200 orcs in order to save their friends. It’s a great one line statement of what the character is all about: this is something we’ve got to do, and if we catch up to these guys we are going to seriously light them up no matter what the odds.
With hope or without hope we will follow the trail of our enemies. And woe to them, if we prove the swifter!
6. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
There’s a moment in Moby Dick when the main character, left alone on a night watch, falls into a dream in which all the other denizens of the ship are transformed into demons. He becomes so caught up in this that he nearly capsizes the ship because he has accidentally turned around to face the stern. Having righted himself and the Pequod, he then meditates on the human condition in a passage that is one of the most lyrical and moving ever written, and which culminates in the lines below. This, in a nutshell, is the wisdom of Melville’s greatest book. You have to look at the bad things in the world, but you can’t let them devour you.
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
7. Albert Camus, The Plague
The Plague was Camus’s attempt to come to terms with totalitarianism and the ways people coped with it. This line is one of those “here I stand, I can do no other” moments that I find really moving. It’s as if the character is saying, “Well, I can’t fix the big problems of the world, but I can live by a moral principle that I choose.” This is a perfect example of why Camus was one of the most humane and brilliant writers of the 20th century.
I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.
8. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
The Sheltering Sky, is just one of the most stunningly beautiful novels ever written. Paul Bowles’s writing is rich and compelling throughout, but there are moments when he puts his finger on something fundamental about the human condition. I remember reading this for the first time and it absolutely took my breath away.
How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
9. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Austen gets my vote for the patron author of librarians. It’s not just this quote, although when I read it in college I immediately thought, “Yeah, that’s the kind of life that I want to live.” There’s just something about the style of life in Austen novels that is fundamentally attractive and I think that this is one of the things that gives them their continuing appeal.
I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.
10. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
No one has ever summed up the lifestyle of a person in a dead end career as successfully (and poignantly) as Amis did in Lucky Jim. Jim Dixon is a university lecturer in 1950s Britain, locked in competition with his fellows and paralyzed by the feeling that his life’s work is trivial. This line, which comes at the end of a passage in which Dixon’s supervisor has nearly involved them in a horrific car crash while nattering on about something trivial, is the perfect expression of the combination of boredom and terror of being stuck in a life that’s going nowhere.
Dixon, thought on the whole glad at this escape, felt at the same time that the conversation would have been appropriately rounded off by Welch’s death.
What is your favorite quote?