Knoxville News Sentinel
A free book landed in my post office box last week. Sending free books to people who might mention them in print is an accepted form of bribery in the world of literature and journalism. Technically, it’s corruption, but there’s no obligation on the part of the recipient to mention a book, and the publishers view it as a profitable practice or they wouldn’t do it.
You would be surprised how many books find their way to me out here to the backwaters of Knox County in the Powell community. In this particular case, the book deals with a subject I’ve addressed on more than one occasion in my weekly column. Apparently I ended up on somebody’s mailing list because nothing on the Internet ever goes away. The World Wide Web has become a sort of collective memory for the human race.
The title of the book is “The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where and When.” It’s from St. Martin’s imprint, a Griffin trade paperback original. The author, Ralph Keyes, previously wrote a similar book called “Nice Guys Finish Seventh,” which I also own and have mentioned before. Quotation sleuths create valuable tools for writers. It’s difficult to verify a quote, even with the Internet at our disposal, and Keyes has done a superb job of researching the subject.
Almost always, when I open a book like this one, I find out that I have been guilty of attributing sayings to the wrong people. For instance, I have attributed the following quote to Mark Twain on more than one occasion because I found him listed as the original source: “A fanatic is always the fellow that is on the other side.” I was surprised to find that it came from Will Rogers. On the other hand, I’ve attributed this one to Rogers, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example,” when Twain really said it.
Ronald Reagan is often attributed with having first said – because he used it without a source – “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Keyes dug out the following quote from Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader who lived in the first century: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It could be a coincidence, but more likely Reagan’s speech writers didn’t know the source.
“If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” This quote became a veritable anthem of the 1960s and 1970s, appearing on everything from posters to key chains. Despite numerous theories, Keyes eventually listed the source of the quotation as, “Yet to be determined.” I once saw a T-shirt for sale in a cop magazine that said: “If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, you can always hunt it down and shoot it.”
Richard Burton once referred to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” This, no doubt, set some hearts fluttering at Burton’s poetic side. However, it’s more likely that the actor was listening to the radio in 1939 after Russia invaded Poland, and Winston Churchill said: “I cannot forecast to you the action of the Russians. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interests.”
I was disappointed to find that Keyes has debunked a couple of my favorite George Bernard Shaw quotes: “It is very easy to give up smoking. I have done it hundreds of times.” I will especially miss, “Experience is the name we give our mistakes.” On the bright side, Shaw did say, after being told by a heckler that one of his plays was rotten: “You and I know that, but who are we among so many?”
“The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where and When” will cost you $15.95 – unless you can find a deal on the Internet or talk the publisher into giving you a free copy. If I didn’t already have a copy, I’d pay that much. It’s a bargain for anyone who loves to spice up his or her original words with a little outside genius.