Commonplace books are a catchall term come to mean collections of quotes, sayings, ideas, or topoi (literary tropes). I am using this space to document quotes from books I have read, arranged by theme. This page will be updated

“I, Satan. I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience…Of course because I’m the one speaking, you’re already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you’re smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true.”

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

“We don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is precisely what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life”

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

“From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.”

Starmaker – Olaf Stapledon

“I’m not joking, boss. I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger, stronger, crazier. And immortal, into the bargain. He’s sitting on a pile of soft sheepskins and his hut’s the sky.”

Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzakis

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it–the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

The City and the Mountains – Eca de Queiroz

We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.”

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Immortality didn’t turn you into a monster. It merely showed you what kind of monster you already were.

Raven Strategem – Yoon Ha Lee

“Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. So woods are spooky.”

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

“I hate walking. And you feel so small when you’re on the ground at the bottom of a hill.”

A Brave New World – Aldous Huxley


“[History’s] sole content is sheer human egotism and the struggle for power. Those engaged in the struggle forever overestimate it, forever glorify their own enterprises-but it is nothing but brutal, bestial, material power they seek…World history is nothing but an endless, dreary account of the rape of the weak by the strong. To associate real history, the timeless history of Mind, with this age-old stupid scramble of the ambitious for power and the climbers for a place in the sun—to link the two let alone to to try to explain the one by the other—is in itself betrayal of the living spirit.”

Magister Ludi – Herman Hesse

“The era which dares to claim that it is the most rebellious that has ever existed only offers a choice of various types of conformity. The real passion of the twentieth century is servitude.”

The Rebel – Albert Camus

“The acceleration of events that is part of our times also affects the fabrication of truth, which, accomplished at this speed, becomes pure fantasy.”

The Rebel – Albert Camus

You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

“How wild the tastes of the ancients, whose poets could be inspired by those absurd, disorderly, stupidly tumbling piles of vapor.”

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

The primitive peasants, prompted perhaps by religious prejudice, stubbornly clung to their “bread.”*

*This word has survived only as a poetic metaphor; the chemical composition of this substance is unknown to us.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea, an unselfish belief in the idea-something you can set up and bow down before, and offer sacrifice to…”

The Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

“Some men are born to lead, to envision, to shape and mold the politics and opinions, the attitudes, the mores, the outcomes of their times, from individual to individual or on a world scale. Others take it upon themselves to intervene rather than to forge, to serve, to help, to intuitively recognize problems or the potential for problems and give whatever is necessary to prevent or at least rectify them. Still others merely exist. Trembling at the thought of the horrible responsibilities that making a decision entails, and willing to let their lives—and, by association, the lives of others—unfold or collapse according to dumb luck, they seek out obscurity. They choose or arrive at insignificance and soon enough become willing to suffer the consequences. There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can’t stomach any of it.”

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

“They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.”

American War – Omer el-Akkad


“Her letters—long, ill-spelt letters, full of absurd jokes and protestations of love for him—meant far more to him than she could ever understand. They were a reminder that there was still somebody in the world who cared for him.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

“But it is worth point out that the chunk of granite on which it was inscribed weighed close on five tons and was quite certainly put there with the intention, though not the conscious intention, of making sure that Gran’pa Comstock shouldn’t get up from underneath it. If you want to know what a dead man’s relatives really think of him, a good rough test is the weight of his tombstone.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

“I am ashamed and disgusted with myself and hate what I have done. It may turn out badly, too. But I must not think about that. I will return to the anaesthetic I have used for seventeen years and will not need much longer. Although it is probably a vice now for which I only invent excuses. Though at least it is a vice for which I am suited. But I wish I could help that poor man whom I am wronging.
‘Drive me back to Freddy’s,’ he said.”

To Have and Have Not – Ernest Hemingway

“Almost felt you liked the Forest! That’s good! That’s uncommonly kind of you. Turn around and let me have a look at your faces. I almost feel that I dislike you both, but do not let us be hasty.”

The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien

“Someone who’s on top of the world isn’t much of an observer: happy people are poor psychologists.”

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

“Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone.”

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“I don’t mean ‘why not me instead of him’…Just ‘why not me too.’”

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

It is not so much that you are appalled at this poor child’s falling in love with you as that you’re afraid that other people may hear of it and sneer.

Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig


“In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it…or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart.”

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

“Here no one was a guest, they were all just refugees from a meaningless afternoon.”

The Land of Green Plums – Herta Müller

One knows how little one can really do to help; as an individual one can’t cope with the infinite wretchedness that exists all around us in the world.

Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

“They ate themselves away from their duty. They reverted to childhood, stealing plums from village trees. They didn’t eat because they were hungry, they just lusted after the sour taste of the poverty which had so recently ruled their lives, a strict father before whom they had cast down their eyes.”

The Land of Green Plums – Herta Müller

“At the time I still believed that in a world without guards people would walk differently from the way we do in our country. Where people are allowed to think and write differently, I thought, they will also walk differently.”

The Land of Green Plums – Herta Müller

“None of them had the guts to lose it (money) in sensational ways such as squandering it on women or at the races; they simply dribbled it away and dribbled it away…”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

“They were just by-products. The throw -outs of the money god.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

“Money worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion—the only really felt religion—that is left to us.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

I had to finally admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality, but a representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve. The superficiality this encouraged—pithiness and oversimplification were rewarded—felt appropriate not merely because it mimicked the way most of us choose to moved through life but also because it had compounded those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous.

Fake Accounts – Lauren Oyler

“They accepted the money-code, and by that code they were failures. They had never had the sense to lash out and just live, money or no money.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

“Sleep, though, that’s still the one thing you can’t begrudge yourself, the only thing that doesn’t cost money: the hours when you throw your spent, wan, now gaunt, still-untouched body on the mattress, unconscious of this ongoing apocalypse for six or seven hours.”

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself the best?”

Black Leopard Red Wolf – Marlon James

“There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligence exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.”

Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem, author’s postscript

The truth is even sadder, Baba: we’re not transparent because we don’t eat…we’re transparent because we’re poor.

Transparent City – Ondjaki

Writers, Books and Writing

“In order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for an ID? You just look at any five pages of his novels, and you will surely know, even without any ID, that you’re dealing with a writer.”

Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And there are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate.

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño

And after screwing, mi general liked to go out in the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh and about all the books he hadn’t read.

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño

Ze emptiness of a page can be unnerving. Too much unformed potential. Sometimes things get self-conscious and clam up. Don’t force them. Just try again.

The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki

Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it’s every person’s task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.

The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki

In a world of chaos and uncertainty, to write was a luxury, a refuge as well as an escape.

Speaking Bones – Ken Liu

“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.

Speaking Bones – Ken Liu

The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection, and leave aside our stories about the deans and the university and the morality squads in the streets. There was a certain innocence with which we read these books; we read them apart from our own history and expectations, like Alice running after the White Rabbit and jumping into the hole. This innocence paid off: I do not think that without it we could have understood our own inarticulateness. Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities, about which we felt so helplessly speechless.

Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi


“The lips of all the women you see must be sweet (the men, too, of course). This interferes to some extent with the flow of logical thought.”

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

But just as flowers grow in more tropical luxuriance in a hothouse, so do wild and frenzied ideas flourish in the darkness. Confused and fantastic, they shoot up out of the sultry soil into garish lianas which choke the breath out of one’s body, and with the swiftness of dreams the most fantastic hallucinations take shape and chase hither and thither round the overheated brain.

Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

For the first time in my life I had received an assurance that I had been of use to someone on this earth, and my astonishment at the thought that I, a commonplace, unsophisticated young office, should really have the power to make someone else so happy knew no bounds.”

Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

“She leans back comfortably in her chair, hardly breathing, eyes closed, and basks in the strange and wonderful feeling of permissible idleness”

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

“She tries harder, this twenty-eight-year-old woman, to remember what it is to be happy, and with alarm she realizes that she no longer knows, that it’s like a foreign language she learned in childhood but has now forgotten, remembering only that she knew it once.”

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

And when at eight in the morning Christine sat down, she was tired–tired not from something achieved and accomplished, but tired in anticipation of everything ahead, the same faces, the same questions, the same chores, the same money.

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“He hated injustice as he hated cruelty and he lay in his rage that blinded his mind until gradually the anger died down and the red, black, blinding, killing anger was all gone and his mind now as quiet, empty-calm and sharp, cold seeing as a man is after he has had sexual intercourse with a woman that he does not love.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

“It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened…”

Coming up for Air – George Orwell

“The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

“‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.'”

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

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