I found my favourite old teaching quote book the other day. It is a book by Tim Brighouse called Inspirations. It contains such minor classics as “there is much to be said about failure; it is more interesting than success”; and “learning is not compulsory but then neither is survival”. There is plenty to back up our own core values in here, too. For instance, Samuel Johnson, who wrote the most famous dictionary ever in the middle of the 18th Century, supposedly said that “curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a rigorous intellect”. So having found this delightful treasure trove, it found its place to where all these things go: the shelf in the downstairs loo. That room, hidden away under the stairs, is the smallest and least attractive of any room in the house, and yet on its only bookshelf it contains in its limited space, and in a hotch-potch sort of way, a whole world of ideas and achievements. First, there are books on wisdom and philosophy: Brighouse’s book is joined by Seldon’s Fourth Education Revolution (which I have picked off to read this week), Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Singer’s Ethics in the Real World, and The Little Book of Mindfulness, which contains the perfect lockdown quote about thoughts: “When you’re cooking fish” it says “you know that, if you keep prodding the flesh, it will start to fall apart and will not cook nicely. It is exactly the same with thoughts. Don’t keep prodding them: be mindful of them and give them a chance to cook along on their own and surprise you with an outcome via your intuition. Trust the process.” Then there are the “best of” books, not always unattached in theme to those of worldly wisdom, which contain some real gems: 50 Philosophy Ideas That You Really Need to Know, The Sporting Century and Speeches that Changed the World, (not least Elie Wiesel’s topical speech to Congress in 1999 on indifference, which he claimed was “always the friend of the enemy”); and finally the curious and the witty: My Garden is a Car Park, a book on visual illusions, Is This Bottle Corked, Wicket Wit, Pooh and the Philosophers, the immortal Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynn Truss, and a tiny, obscure, but fascinating book from 1834 entitled ‘Hints on Etiquette, with a Glance at Bad Habits’!
Many of these books, these libelli as the Romans would have called them, are easily dismissed as superficial, or simply snapshots to pass a few minutes before a return to doing something more serious; but it is a mistake, I think. Quotes, even when taken out of context, and indeed short stories and shortened compilations, leave much to the imagination – they give space to readers to think, to explore our own interpretations, to churn things over in our minds, to “trust the process” as the little book of mindfulness tells us; and ultimately they provide us with the stimulus for our own curiosities, and a desire to find out more. In fact, come to think of it, I wonder whether this shelf might not be better placed in its own special corner of the sitting room instead – I can then, perhaps, devote more time to them rather than less.