Les Mots Justes

By Cornelia Read

I started keeping a book of quotations when I was about eighteen–just little snippets of things that were written so well, so exactly, that I wanted to somehow possess them outside the pages in which I’d initially read them. Most are a mere sentence long, and I return to my little egg-yolk yellow notebook weekly, at the very least, not for inspiration, per se, but to run my eyes lustfully over the lapidary specimens all gathered in one rich place.

A good sentence has cadence, poetry, and a little bite, in my estimation. It skitters across the surface of things, hinting at boundless depth with no obvious exertion. A perfect sentence suggests an entire world, sharply delineated in a few master strokes–its meaning as much to be found in what is not said as in what is.

Herewith, a few recent things I’ve added to my collection:

He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.


The species are still so innocent that a person who is apt to be murdered believes that the murderer, just before he puts the final wrench on his throat, will have enough compassion to give him one sweet cup of water. 

–Maya Angelou


And, of course, that is what all of this is – all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs – that song, endlesly reincarnated – born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket ’88’, that Buick 6 – same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness.

— Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather


Weren’t lovers interchangeable when you thought back about them? Maybe that was true in the future too…. I always loved odd things: the blue curacao bottle, the wet asphalt, my own insipid fear.

–Darcey Steinke


The writer who loses his self-doubt, who gives way as he grows old to a sudden euphoria, to prolixity, should stop writing immediately: the time has come for him to lay aside his pen.


If you have any doubts that we live in a society controlled by men, try reading down the index of contributors to a volume of quotations, looking for women’s names.

–Elaine Gill

The establishment is made up of little men, very frightened.

–Bella Abzug


Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes in a gym bag.

–Diane Ackerman


You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

–Abigail Adams (letter, 1775)

Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.

–Diane Arbus

I would be a socialist if I thought it would work.

–Nancy Astor

 My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.

–Tallulah Bankhead

I ask the support of no one, neither to kill someone for me, gather a bouquet, correct a proof, nor to go with me to the theater. I go there on my own, as a man, by choice; and when I want flowers, I go on foot, by myself, to the Alps.

–George Sand

And really, the reason we think of death in celestial terms is that the visible firmament, especially at night (above our blacked-out Paris with the gaunt arches of its Boulevard Exelmans and the ceaseless Alpine gurgle of desolate latrines), is the most adequate and ever-present symbol of that vast silent explosion. 

–Vladimir Nabokov


I’m deeply suspicious of anything with a whiff of the New Age about it—not because of the practices themselves, which as far as I can tell from a safe distance may well have a lot to them, but because of the people who get involved who always seem to be the kind who corner you at parties to explain how they discovered that they are survivors and deserve to be happy. I worry that I might come out of hypnosis with that sugar-high glaze of self-satisfied enlightenment, like a seventeen-year-old who’s just discovered Kerouac, and start proselytizing strangers in pubs.

–Tana French

And then, of course, there are these guys:


How about you, sweet ‘Ratis? Have you read a perfect sentence lately?

16 thoughts on “Les Mots Justes

  1. Debby J

    Lauren Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT: "You know Steve, you’re not very hard to figure, only at times. Sometimes I know exactly what you’re going to say. Most of the time. The other times… the other times, you’re just a stinker.’

    A teachable moment on so many levels.

  2. pari noskin taichert

    This is so frustrating, Cornelia! I remember reading something I wanted to remember this week but can’t remember it <g>.

    How about one of my all-time favorite toasts?

    May the most that you want be the least that you get.

  3. Rae

    Hi Miss C,

    It’s all about Dorothy Parker for me – here are a couple that are amusing me this morning:

    My land is bare of chattering folk;
    the clouds are low along the ridges,
    and sweet’s the air with curly smoke
    from all my burning bridges.


    A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.

  4. JT Ellison

    I loved this from Barry Eisler in FAULT LINE:

    "And lasts, he had learned, were in retrospect always imbued with a significance they had utterly lacked at the time."

    And this from Twyla Tharp:
    "The call to a creative life is not supposed to be torture."

  5. JD Rhoades

    "I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me."-Noel Coward

    "A farm is what a city man dreams of at 5 PM but never at 5 AM." -Anonymous

  6. toni mcgee causey

    I love a lot of quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt:

    You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
    Eleanor Roosevelt

    No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
    Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘This Is My Story,’ 1937

  7. Karen M.

    "Familiarity breeds contempt–and children."
    Mark Twain

    I like lots of Mark Twain.
    On writing: "Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream."
    On life: "Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."
    "It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."

    And of course, "I don’t want my body to be a distraction from my talent or my brain."

    Oh, wait. That last one was Shania Twain.

  8. BCB

    I don’t know about perfect sentences — it seems so many of them are only perfect in context (though I’ve copied several of these, they’re excellent). Here is one of my favourite quotes:

    "Let us dare to read, think, speak and write." -John Adams, 1765

    I think it’s the inclusion of the word "dare" that does it for me. And with apologies to the men over here, I saw this online today:

    "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult." -Charlotte Whitton

    Far from a perfect sentence, but after the week I had it made me laugh. Sometimes, that’s enough.

    And I love the Nick and Nora Charles movies, thanks for including that clip! Been too long since I watched one. Dialog really took a beating once Hollywood figured out how to blow stuff up.

  9. Fran

    Late to the party as usual, but I just read this line from Derek Haas’ new one "Columbus":

    "No, no, no, Mr. Walker. Hang paintings on a wall, put photographs on a shelf, but books. . . .no, they are alive. They are meant to be handled. Open the pages and read them. Only then are they worth collecting, once you know what’s inside."

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