Monday, November 28, 2011

Chesterton the Most Quotable?

Apologies for the hiatus in posting recently-- I notice that the blog has reached twenty-seven followers now, which is yet another reason to be thankful, in the best Chestertonian manner!

It has been a long time since there was a Chesterton Society meeting, but I am hoping that some time in the New Year the fifth meeting can be organized. The last one went pretty well and I want to try to improve on that again. All suggestions welcome. If you know a Chesterton expert who is living in Ireland and is willing to talk about some aspect of GKC out of pure love, put me in touch...

Meanwhile, I would like to ask readers their opinion-- I loaned my sister some Chesterton books recently and she told me that she's found herself quoting GKC to people. That seems to be an occupational hazard of reading Chesterton. I have even read Chesterton described as the most quotable author in the English language.

It made me ponder. Is it true? Much as I love Chesterton, I tend to doubt it. The man on the street, that rather dilletantish vagrant, would probably recognize few of Chesterton's aphorisms, even the most famous. Could you say "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly" to your dentist, and trust he would catch the reference? Would your grandmother know who said, "The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to stop the mistakes being corrected"? If you had a t-shirt with the slogan, "You should not look a gift universe in the mouth", would the local pharmacist break into a knowing grin and say "I should have guessed it! You're a Chestertonian too!".

I rather doubt it. And complicating the issue is that fact that the aphorism most often attributed to Chesterton-- "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything"-- doesn't actually seem to occur amongst the 2000, 000, 0000, 0000 words that he wrote.

On the other hand, everyone and his chiropodist knows that Mark Twain said, "Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated". Aliens on other planets quote Oscar Wilde's "I have nothing to declare except my genius". And George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton's great friend and sparring partner, has probably won the war of quotability, with incessantly repeated gems like: "You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?".

Chesterton is surely one of the most quotable authors in the language. But does he stand at the pinnacle? I'd have to say he does not.


  1. Well, I reckon that people don't always know they're quoting Chesterton. One thing is for sure: if you have a really radical thought which you're finding difficult to put into words, read Chesterton - I'll bet the farm he crystallised it years before you were born!

  2. I saw a poster for an Elvis CD with the slogan, "Before anybody did anything, Elvis did everything". Sometimes that's how I feel about Chesterton-- which of course is silly since so many people wrote before him!