Lauded literary critic Dwight Garner will join the National Writers Series for a free, virtual event on Thursday, January 14, beginning at 7 p.m. to discuss his newest release, “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.” The book was originally published on November 10, 2020, and is available for preorder at Horizon Books with a 20% NWS discount. The guest host for the event is Doug Stanton, New York Times #1 Bestselling Author and co-founder of the National Writers Series.
Modernist writer Katherine Mansfield began one of her many diaries by musing, “I hope this pen works. Yes, it does.” Lucky for us, so does Dwight Garner’s. A book critic for The New York Times and former Book Review editor, Garner’s kept his own commonplace book since he was a teen. Now, nearly 40 years and countless quotes later, he’s giving readers a glimpse into his personal stash, with contemporary commonplace, “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.” Raunchy, irreverent, and delightfully real, this is one “commonplace” that’s anything but common.
Now a publishing powerhouse in his own right, Dwight Garner has been tracking text since early childhood. “I was born in West Virginia,” he says, “and I think I felt my world, correctly or not, was a small one. I wanted to expand that world.”
It was in that interest that Garner turned to books. “I was a reader almost before I could walk,” he says, “and I turned fairly early on to criticism. A lot of my favorite writers when I was young, or at least by the time I was a teenager, were critics, because I think I needed someone to talk to in my mind. I enjoyed people who had read and seen the same things that I did, and to hear them converse in their ideas about what this world of literature meant.”
A school paper editor-turned-successful critic, Garner worked as a “stringer,” or apprentice journalist, for Newsweek while still in college and wrote criticism for multiple papers, including The Village Voice in New York, before landing a position with The New York Times. Of course, Garner’s career only encouraged his interest in quotes.
“When I was 13 or 14, I was reading something, and I just thought, ‘That’s such a nice observation. I should write it down somewhere!’ And then I did, and I got sort of addicted to doing it.”
Since then, Garner’s amassed countless quotations—all impeccably organized, per his profession—from intelligence to essay, and everything in between. But it doesn’t end there. “I also keep quotations about a lot of the kinds of things that people don’t often keep quotations about,” Garner says. Vomit, for example, and sexual disease, both reappear throughout the book, including the immortal words of Henry Miller: “Better a good venereal disease than a moribund peace and quiet.” The list—quite literally—goes on.
For his own part, Garner’s never found himself influenced by the “shop-worn epiphanies” that we so often see above sofas and bed frames. Instead, he prefers to deal in the short and the sharp, and “Garner’s Quotations” is structured as such. “My book is intentionally on the cheerfully-pessimistic side because I think most books of quotations are skewed toward optimism and light,” he says.
Instead, Garner’s tailored his book “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, even if the truth is terrible.” Spoilers—it isn’t. At least, not always. “I was looking for the terse and the true and the slightly bitter and the witty,” he says. “The reason to read literature is for truth-telling—for knowing what the world is like—and I think those are the things I was trying to get at in this book.”
Still, Garner maintains that humor is often its own form of healing. “If this book has a message,” he says “it’s that things aren’t always so beautiful, but there are a lot of reasons to keep living and to keep laughing. Maybe things aren’t always improving—maybe things sort of suck—but we can still take some joy and passion in the way the world is.”