The Legend of Quote Boy

Preface from Word Hero


When a friend asked what I was writing these days, I replied, “I’m going to teach you to come up with the words they’ll quote in your obituary.”

She recoiled as if I’d offered to design her coffin. So I added, “Ever see the musical Fame? Where the song says, ‘Baby, remember my name’”?

She nodded. “‘I’m going to live forever.’”

“My book will help you do that. Only with words instead of singing and dancing.”

I meant, it too, having had experience with immortality—not my own, but the lasting words in an important book. When I got into college, I celebrated by buying a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for the breathtaking sum of fifteen dollars. Every day I switched on my new electric typewriter, typed a quote onto an index card, and taped the card outside my dorm room door. Naturally, classmates started calling me “Quote Boy.” I didn’t mind; a guy on our hall threw up on a dean and earned the name “Booter” for the rest of his life. Besides, the quotes were a conversation piece and a way to meet women.

Even better, the words in Bartlett’s were the stuff of immortality. One of the cards I put up bore a quote from the Hindu Upanishads that was almost three thousand years old: “The gods love the obscure and hate the obvious.” Whatever that meant, I felt jealous. Imagine making anything that lasts three thousand years! I taped up the work of other immortals, like Ogden Nash.

Nash: A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.

And Mark Twain.

Twain: When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.

And Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Skinner: Woman’s virtue is man’s greatest invention.

Each time I taped up a card, I wondered how that person did it. What was the magic behind words that went viral and stayed viral?

Many years later, I discovered the means: tools that produce brilliant words in striking order or that shift our view of reality. I share them in this book in the hope that there’s a Quote Boy or Girl—or even a Word Hero—in you.