Election is democratic, selection is aristocratic—or, if you prefer, elitist. Thus a dictionary of quotations is, by definition, elitist. The sayings and writings chosen for it represent ideas better thought out and more smartly put than the average person could manage. Perhaps that is why the editors of such books so strenuously affirm their democracy.

In The New York Public Library Book of 20th-Century American Quotations (one of the unwieldiest titles to come down the pike, but note that user-friendly “Book,” rather than dictionary), the editors—Stephen Donadio, Joan Smith, Susan Mesner, and Rebecca Davison—affirm: “We searched beyond the notable to find lesser known contributions. It was especially satisfying to find people who were well known within their communities but who have not been visible to the larger society.” If you wonder why there is no hyphen in “well-known,”...

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