The best compliment you can pay to David Crews’ “The Mississippi Book of Quotations,” is the urge to wonder aloud, “Why didn’t somebody think of this before?”
After all, Mississippi has produced some of the finest writers in the English language as well as some of the world’s greatest singer/songwriters. The paradox has long been noted: Mississippi, the least literate of states, has produced a disproportionate amount of great story-tellers.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who reveres that tradition more than Crews, who now adds “author” to his list of job credits.
The clerk of the U.S. District Court Northern District, Crews, 62, is a former U.S. Marshal who also spent 12 years in the U.S. Department of Justice. He also served executive director of CREATE and produced an award-winning documentary on Gov. William Winter. Oh, he is also believed to be the first person since the 1800s to hike the entire length of the Natchez Trace. He runs marathons and hikes mountains.
But he is also something else. Since childhood, Crews has been a passionate reader. It is that trait, along with his penchant for being something of a pack rat, that combined to create the book, published this fall by Nautilus Publishing of Oxford.
“Since high school, if I ran across a vivid piece of language or a poetic turn of phrase or something just funny, memorable or even disturbing, I’d write it down on a scrap of paper and stick in a shoebox,” Crews says. “About 2½ years ago, I was looking through all those scraps of paper in those shoeboxes — about 4,000 of them, from Mississippians alone. “I thought, ‘Dang, this might make a book.”
Has it ever. In a sense, it is more than simply a compilation. In years to come, it will likely be used as a reference source, recording as it does much of the history of Mississippi in the words of those who made that history.
Crews book goes beyond the usual suspects — William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and more contemporary writers such as John Grisham, Donna Tartt, Greg Iles, Richard Ford, Barry Hannah and many others. It also captures memorable utterances from entertainers — B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Leontyne Price — prominent journalists, civil rights icons and celebrities of all stripes. There are also Mississippi politicians spanning several eras, along with a fair amount of otherwise obscure folks (including me) who somehow managed to catch Crews’ attention.
The book is a celebration of Mississippi’s great story-telling tradition, but it is also a grim reminder of our lesser moments as evidenced by the ugly utterances of such men as Theodore Bilbo, Ross Barnett and James K. Vardaman.
There are poetic phrasings and powerful insights into the human condition, but there is plenty of humor, too, the best of which are the malaprops and absurdities that seem to flow like rivers from legislators.
“Outsiders” contribute their observations about Mississippi, a list that includes Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Jon Stewart, Paul Simon, Johnny Carson, Theodore Roosevelt and others.
As Crews feverishly worked to complete his book, he began to worry that the idea was so obvious someone else was certain to be working on the same project. To his relief, he was first and figures to own that franchise now.
The diversity of the compilation — some 2,000 quotes from 304 contributors divided into 66 categories — tells a wonderful story. Our story.
It isn’t likely to end there, either.
You can count on subsequent editions. In fact, both Crews and Nautilus Publishing owner Neil White have been inundated with suggested quotes for the next edition. They have even set up a website where folks can offer their own favorite quotes: MSbookofQuotations.com
It’s hard to estimate how many volumes are to come.
Plenty, I bet.
After all, there are any number of things Mississippians just won’t do.
Shutting up is not one of them.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.