Books and speeches. Lyrics and interviews. Rash tweets and sworn testimony. Curating and recording statements of the past decade would overwhelm anyone. But for editors of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, keeping track is their job.
Geoffrey O’Brien is general editor of what’s often simply called Bartlett’s. The hefty reference tome is the oldest continuing and best known collection of quotations. It is used by students, writers, pastors, and politicians looking to locate the perfect quotation for support—or proof.
Bartlett’s was founded in the 1850s by Cambridge, Massachusetts, bookstore owner John Bartlett. His eponymous volume has always been an eccentric project. Early editions were almost entirely dedicated to Bible verses and white, male, English-language poets, statesmen, and prose writers. Perhaps that’s because those were the works and people with whom Bartlett was most familiar.
Despite limitations, included quotations were unpredictable. Bartlett included Benjamin Franklin, but not Thomas Jefferson. He chose Thomas Paine, but not John Adams. Editor and translator “Mrs. Sarah Austin” got an entry, but not Jane Austen.
In recent decades, Bartlett’s began diversifying. The volume now includes voices from around the world and a broad range of backgrounds. Today’s Bartlett’s offers Russian proverbs, sea shanties, and a Navajo hunting song. It also contains quotations from Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, teenage activist Greta Thunberg, and controversial Iranian-American writer Azar Nafisi.
Last fall, O’Brien and his staff published the 19th edition of 170-year-old Bartlett’s. The new book welcomes thousands of persons to the unofficial canon of quotability. They include the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elon Musk, and President Joe Biden.
For this edition, O’Brien and his team struggled to broaden Bartlett’s while keeping its length around 1,400 pages. “With the internet and cable news, you have the constant manufacturing of statements,” O’Brien says. His challenge is to choose quotations that have staying power beyond news cycles.
Some older entries had to go. O’Brien was sorry to reduce the space for a personal favorite, English poet John Dryden.
Fame does not guarantee quotability. And infamy does not lead to exclusion.
Bob Hope is a comedian whose name once seemed universally known. He’s not included. Neither is Johnny Carson, a U.S. cultural touchstone and late-night TV talk show host for decades. Contemporary celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah, and the late Rush Limbaugh? They’re not in there either.
O’Brien expressed regret over some omissions. But he explains that the goal is to be representative, not all-encompassing.
Why? Words—especially those of scripture itself and those that relate scriptural truth—are important to God and humankind. Remember to be responsible with your words, for a person’s tongue has potential to do great good or evil. (James 3:4-10)