True confessions time: I used to keep a quotebook. I was a little bit famous for it. Even now, if I’m around the right group of folks and someone’s extra clever, someone inevitably says, “Where’s the quotebook? Come on! That was totally quotebook-worthy.”
(I found one of these the other day and laughed myself hoarse. Time capsules, that’s what old notebooks are. A window right back in time.)
I love little bits, little lines, consumable pieces of something deep and wide. I love to be able to remember a single line, like a sniff of a flower reminds you of an entire evening, or a particular taste–ripe watermelon, for instance, or maybe the explosion of a caper–can stand for an entire season.
And so, I present to you: my top 5 favorite lines of all time.
1. “Habit and awe are harder to overcome than people realize until they actually try to circumvent the conduct of years.” –Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds
Okay, there are no words to describe how much I loved The Thorn Birds when I first read it, or how much it influenced me. I read it straight through and turned right back around and read it again. (I was eleven. I owe Colleen McCullough my understanding of the word “flaccid”, which I had to look up in a dictionary, because this was before the internet. Probably best. Not sure what “flaccid” would have turned up on Google…)
Now, I think to myself, Gee, the one true paring is a Catholic priest and a woman eighteen years his junior, which wouldn’t be creepy except they apparently fell in love when she was like twelve.
Still, I’ve read, and loved, so fucking much of this book. I loved all the minor characters, I loved the scope, the settings, the atmosphere conveyed by some great cocktail of heat and lambing and emotion withheld until it burst free and destroyed people (something like thunder and lighting). I loved the church politics, and Ralph’s inescapable tortures, and Justine and Dane. (I was nicer to my little brother after reading Justine and Dane.)
This line is about growing up, and when I used to practice calligraphy, I wrote it over and over and over again for pages, trying to get my letters right.
2. “And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard, or welcomed, but when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.” –Audre Lorde, “We Were Never Meant to Survive”
Fuckin’ Audre Lorde, man. This is from a poem, and my spacing above is probably incorrect, but it’s how I hear it in my head. Some lines enter your brain and resonate in your body; this line calms my breathing and slows my heart when I’m freaking the fuck out. Thank you, Audre Lorde.
3. “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.” –Stephen King, The Gunslinger
I don’t remember books in images. Hell, I don’t usually remember images in images. But this moment from The Gunslinger is so goddamn clear in my mind that it’s as if I was standing right there when it happened, an eye witness. A man holds on to a desperate boy, swinging over an abyss, but he knows he must drop him. The boy knows, too, and says, “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”
4. “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” –James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin was talking specifically about black men and white men, about complacency, and fear. In a way, he and Audre Lorde were calling out the same thing, or variations of it: silence and safety, or the illusion of safety.
5. “I write fiction for a specific, deliberate, reasonable, old lesbian purpose. The world I love is not on the page. The world I understand is not reflected on the page.” –Dorothy Allison, “Notes to a Young Feminist”
I just…love this. I love this entire line. I love the great connection Dorothy Allison’s making here between art and reason. And I, too, write to see my world on the page. (God, I would have so loved to be a baby dyke in the tradition of lesbian feminists. I wanted that so fucking badly when I was fourteen, fifteen. And even though I wasn’t that, “Notes to a Young Feminist” still spoke directly to my guts.)
Bonus favorite line:
6. “Even there under the club lights, the night damp of an unused road began to gather.” –Loren Eiseley, “The Dance of the Frogs”
“The Dance of the Frogs” is an essay about a guy telling a story that Eiseley’s younger self, who listens to it, doesn’t quite believe. But by the end of the story not only does Eiseley grudgingly believe that a man on a foggy rural road might have almost become a frog one night, but the reader believes it, too.
The fucking pacing of this essay is one of my favorite pieces of short writing ever; I used to read it aloud to my niece when she was younger, and by the end we’d both be leaning forward while I read it faster and faster, because you can’t help but be carried along.