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Frank Gray

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Give the gift of quotable quips


Homemade gifts are peculiar creatures.

Give someone a homemade scarf and they might ooh and aah about how beautiful it is – and then regift it or give it to Goodwill.

Give them a jar of homemade jam and they’ll toss it in the trash and later tell you how delicious it was.

Then there are the gifts that Dorothy Lebrecht gives people – custom-made books full of quotes, quotes from Einstein, Aristotle, Yogi Berra, funny stuff, profound stuff, surprising stuff. They read them, they keep them and they re-read them.

They’re called commonplace books, said Lebrecht, who uses the name Dorothea Lee on the books. Back in the Victorian age when women had servants and nothing to do, women would assemble these books, filling them with quotes, witticisms and useful bits of knowledge. Actually, people were producing these back in the 1500s, it turns out.

It wasn’t until Dorothea was in her 80s, though, that she even started thinking about the old practice. It was about that time that she started collecting quotes, meticulously writing them down in spiral notebooks as she stumbled across them while she read.

Eventually she ended up with about a dozen spiral notebooks filled with quotes.

Then, about 2005, she decided to create a custom-made commonplace book for a friend, picking out quotes from her huge supply to tailor the book just for her.

Then she made another, carefully recording quotes in neat handwriting (they don’t teach cursive writing any more), numbering the pages and even including an index of quotes in the back of the book.

And then she did it again, and again.

One of the people who had gotten one of the books showed me hers. It was thrilling to get one, the woman said. Dorothea gives them only to people she thinks are special.

By the way, she had just completed her 100th such book.

I looked at it, and I realized something. Nothing is quite as interesting as a collection of quotes.

Some are funny. Some teach you that you’ve lived your life all wrong.

Some teach you that the past has always had its share of pundits with no vision and no idea of what the future held.

I went to talk to Dorothea. She was puzzled why I was even interested. It’s just something she does, she says.

She’s 92, she said, and she’s in a nursing home now, Kingston Care Center, and uses a wheelchair.

“I have a lot of time,” she exclaimed. “I can’t run around. I can’t just sit around doing nothing.”

So she creates these books.

As our conversation progressed, Dorothea started tossing out little tidbits.

“Children today contradict their parents, gulp their food and terrorize their teachers,” she said. Socrates said that, she said.

She quoted a prediction someone made more than half a century ago, saying one day computers would weigh less than 1.5 tons.

She noted that someone once said the entire world market was only big enough to sell five computers, and that a Western Union official once said the telephone had no use to them.

Women love Dolly Parton quotes. Men seem to like Mark Twain quotes.

Then she noted that “calories are tiny creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes tighter at night.”

“As long as people think and speak there will be quotes,” she said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.