Quote, unquote

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 1995, 12:00am

YESTERDAY I discovered a treasure in an article about Umberto Eco. It seemed Eco once used, as an epigraph, a quotation by the logician Raymond Smullyan: 'Superstition brings bad luck.' Someday I'll find that quotation useful (as indeed, Eco did).

From the age of Gutenberg until a decade ago there were only two ways of collecting witty quotations: happening upon them one by one in the course of reading, or sifting through a dense wad of them in compilations like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Generally we got a bigger charge out of the former, such discoveries being true serendipity. By the time a quotation enters Bartlett's, chances are it has already been used to begin 50,000 term papers. We all remember the man who is surprised, upon seeing Hamlet for the first time, to find that it is 'full of quotations'.

Although I have never understood birdwatchers, finding a witty, concise and memorable expression of an idea in its original setting is a thrill which must surely be akin to spotting the first blue-throated warbler of spring, or whatever bird it is that gets birdwatchers' hormones going. Often the words seem to glow like embers, too hot to touch in a world of lukewarm expressions and tepid ideas. 'The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the mind to correlate all its contents.' That sentence lay in an H.P. Lovecraft short story until I, and perhaps 10 million other readers, dug it up and shouted 'Eureka'.

Rarity gave these discoveries even more value. In college I started a notebook of my own favourite quotations. I found new ones at the rate of about once a month. Some of these were common stock ('Who are a little wise the best fools be.' - Donne). Some were rarer ('Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to the birds.' - Barnett Newman) and some, such as T.E. Lawrence's 'There is nothing more restful than taking orders from fools' (his explanation for why he entered the military), I have never seen since. The labour of finding and transcribing them made them all the more valuable to me.

Now inflation has started in, thanks to the Internet. Those who do not voyage regularly through cyberspace may not be aware that quotations are now as common as dirt near a mineshaft.

USENET is a set of 5,000-odd discussion groups, called newsgroups, on which people leave messages to one another on topics ranging from specific computer issues to politics, science, arts, and nutrition. There also exist weird groups for fans of true crime, vampires, Dave Barry, and Spam. One reads and writes messages with a program called a newsreader. Some newsreaders offer the option of planting automatically a witty quotation at the end of a message, to make one's correspondence more entertaining.

Where I once would have to read voraciously to find witty sayings in their own element, or plough through compilations to read them ad seriatim, I now come upon them by the dozens each day, in this manner: alt.automobile.antique From: Egon Toast Re: Muffler for 1949 Packard I need the above, preferably new or near-new. Any ideas would be appreciated. Thanks.

'Definition of news: what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.' - Lord Northcliffe, Times of London owner.

The juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime is part of the fun. On alt.food.fat-free a recommendation of an egg substitute for baking is followed by Dostoyevsky: 'I've always thought that the second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.' Amidst a discussion of computer security is 'there is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.' H.L. Mencken.

The result is inflation: with so many good quotations whizzing around cyberspace like gnats at a campsite, each must be less valuable to us. That's the way it goes in the modern world. But maybe, as Khrushchev remarked about nuclear weapons: 'Quantity has a quality all its own.'