“When I was ten years old, my father—who was not a literary-type person at all, he was an engineer—for some reason picked up a copy of Bartlett’s Quotations . . . and brought it home and gave it to me. There was something about Bartlett’s that really appealed to me,” said Fred Shapiro as he described his early interest in quotations during a talk delivered on November 14 in the Cornell Law School Library. The appeal of quotations continued on through Shapiro’s college years and into his professional life, which is when he decided to edit his own book, The Yale Book of Quotations, released in 2006.
Shapiro, who also works as an associate law librarian at Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library, presented “Quote Unquote: Compiling The Yale Book of Quotations” as part of the Cornell Law Library Speaker Series. While his name is now synonymous with quotations, Shapiro said he originally started looking at them as a way to become familiar with a variety of subjects in a short period of time.
“I have a very dilettantish mind . . . I was attracted to the idea of snippets that you find in quotations as an easy way to learn about history and literature and other things,” he said.
Unlike other popular quotation books like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which tend to focus on classic quotes from a United Kingdom perspective and feature historical figures such as Shakespeare or Lord Alfred Tennyson, Shapiro includes quotes from a broad range of sources, including American popular culture. A reader is just as likely to find a quote from New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra as one from the Bible.
Playing to his natural curiosity as well as his profession as a law librarian, Shapiro’s conducts extensive research to trace the origins of the quotes. Oftentimes, he will discover that a popular quote existed several decades earlier than originally thought or has been misattributed entirely.
Despite the corrections he’s been able to identify in his own research, Shapiro readily admits the book is far from perfect. He regularly finds new sources and errors thanks to research databases, Google Books, and a vibrant Internet community interested in quotations. Describing part of his process as a version of crowdsourcing, Shapiro has been able to leverage research prowess of others along with his own efforts.
“I thought, ‘I’m way beyond anyone else . . . no one is going to find any corrections,’” he said. “Boy was I wrong.”
Incorporating the new discoveries yielded from that work has been one of the biggest challenges for compiling a second edition, which he is currently editing. Shapiro said it took six years to compile the first edition and anticipated that it could take at least three to five years to complete a second.