50 Quotes from 50 Classics

Many publications—and, well, all publishers—are in the business of telling us which books are best.

From TIME magazine, to the Guardian, to Entertainment Weekly and the Modern Library, endless and ever-changing lists of the world’s greatest books, or this year’s bestselling novels, or every unmissable work of British fiction appear with unapologetic frequency and spend weeks trending in media outlets.

What all of them fail to mention is what we’re going to see when we get there. There may be a quick plot synopsis or six-word description of the author’s trademark style, but little else. Yes, these books might be as great as they say—but we’re going to need a little proof. A showcase, if you will.

It is rare that a quote captures the essence of an entire novel, but it can provide a momentary glimpse. With this in mind, I’ve rounded up standout quotes from dozens of beloved and world-renowned classics. The excerpts below come straight out of fifty more or less randomly chosen novels featured on TheGreatestBooks.org, a “Best Books” list generated by all of the other “Best Books” lists combined.

How were these particular quotes selected? Simple: my loyal pet Bias stomped around and snatched them up. There may be no apparent organization, but like a mixtape, I have carefully arranged (and rearranged) them for flow.

So consider this Exhibit A: not summaries, but snapshots of fifty books hailed as the best of the best. The evidence is in, the experts have had their say, and now it’s your turn to be the judge.

 

Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

 

That is the one unforgivable sin in any society. Be different and be damned!

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

 

Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

 

The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid and, above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in a church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

I prefer unlucky things. Luck is vulgar. Who wants what luck would bring? I don’t.

D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love

 

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

 

They looked at each other, baffled, in love and hate.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

I never liked to hunt, you know. There was always the danger of having a horse fall on you.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

I do suspect that he is not really necessary to my happiness.

Jane Austen, Emma

 

You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

 

Time, which sees all things, has found you out.

Sophocles, Oedipus the King

 

They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening

 

I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

 

It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same—everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same—people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.

George Orwell, 1984

 

Ever’body’s askin’ that. “What we comin’ to?” Seems to me we don’t never come to nothin’. Always on the way.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

 

The Mole was a good listener, and Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticize in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterwards.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

 

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

 

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

 

Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

 

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr. Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on.

Toni Morrison, Beloved

 

I saw within Its depth how It conceives

All things in a single volume bound by Love

of which the universe is the scattered leaves.

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

 

And again she felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

 

It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.

Albert Camus, The Stranger

 

A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night, though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

 

Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 

I ask you to pass through life at my side—to be my second self, and best earthly companion.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

 

It is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.

Franz Kafka, The Trial

 

The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

 

Who then may trust the dice, at Fortune’s throw?

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

 

When, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolf-like, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.

Jack London, The Call of the Wild

 

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

 

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

 

I assure you that the world is not so amusing as we imagined.

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons

 

Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

 

I will wear him

In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

 

Lying in bed, he would think of Heaven and London.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

 

It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at the bottom.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

 

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

 

Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

 

The air brightened, the running shadow patches were now the obverse, and it seemed to him that the fact that the day was clearing was another cunning stroke on the part of the foe, the fresh battle toward which he was carrying ancient wounds.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

 

“Do you know—I hardly remembered you?”
“Hardly remembered me?”
“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

 

In his deepest heart there surge tremendous shame and madness mixed with sorrow and love whipped on by frenzy and a courage aware of its own worth.

Virgil, The Aeneid

 

So, with their usual sense of justice, ladies argue that because a woman is handsome, therefore she is a fool. O ladies, ladies! there are some of you who are neither handsome nor wise.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

 

I was filled with such a dangerous delicious intoxication that I could have walked straight off the steps into the air, climbing on the strength of my own drunkenness into the stars. And the intoxication, as I knew even then, was the recklessness of infinite possibility, of danger, the secret ugly frightening pulse of war itself, of the death that we all wanted, for each other and for ourselves.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

 

I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

 

As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra.

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

 

Both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

And, just for good measure, here are a handful of runners up:

 

For now the seventh summer carries you,

A wanderer, across the lands and waters.

Virgil, The Aeneid

 

You are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 

I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

 

Do come back and draw the ferrets, they are the most lovely noble darlings in the world.

D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love

 

Once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but an uncharted voyage on the seas.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

 

Time is the River on which the leaves of our thoughts are carried into oblivion.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

 

I told Terry I was leaving. She had been thinking about it all night and was resigned to it. Emotionlessly she kissed me in the vineyard and walked off down the row. We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

Babies, babies, babies. Why did God make so many babies? But no, God didn’t make them. Stupid people made them.

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

 

Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

Jim said that bees won’t sting idiots, but I didn’t believe that, because I tried them lots of times myself and they wouldn’t sting me.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

It had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

 

I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

 

Here let dead poetry rise once more to life.

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

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