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Editor's Choice

The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, forward by Joseph Epstein (Yale University Press, 1,067 pages, $50). "Everybody wants to get into the act!" as Jimmy Durante used to say.

Bartlett's has one. Oxford University Press has one. And now so does Yale. So what if this massive book of quotations ignores that classic by Jimmy Durante (nor does it include another of my favorite Durante quotes: "what-a-catasta-stroke!")

If you must know, a wee bit of stuffiness and parsimony is the book's problem. If you're looking for pop cultural expansiveness and true inclusiveness, you need to go elsewhere. You won't, for instance, find Frank Zappa's immortal assessment of his own fans "most of these kids wouldn't know music if it bit them on the ass." But you will find this from Zappa: "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who don't read." And you'll also find Elvis Presley's deathless but typically candid confession "I don't know anything about music. In my line of work you don't have to." Not to mention no less than 13 -- 13 -- quotes from "Monty Python's Flying Circus" including this from Michael Palin in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": "Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some aquatic ceremony."

OK, then, so it's idiosyncratic and not exactly exhaustively inclusive about pop culture. Let's move farther up the cultural ladder. If you're looking, for instance, for the exact and complete context of Marianne Moore saying that poets should be "literalists of the imagination" and should create "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" you won't find it. Nor will you find her delightful description of writing so simple that "even dogs and cats can read" it. (Bartlett's has a full 26 quotes from Moore to Yale's two.)

But, hey, let's give credit where it's due. Let's say you're looking for who actually first said "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." All you'll find is Bartlett's ascription to "anonymous" and the notation "feminist folk saying." From Shapiro, though, in this Yale Book of Quotations, you'll get some history -- that in 1976 People Magazine reported that Gloria Steinem wore it on a T-shirt. And that Steinem credited Australian "educator, journalist and politician" Irina Dunn with it. And that Dunn has said she wrote "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" on "two toilet doors in Sydney, Australia, in 1970, paraphrasing 'a man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle.'"

Real scholarship.

There's nothing quite like it.

-- Jeff Simon

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