My Thirteen Favorite Updike Quotes


By Joe Campbell
January 28th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I discovered John Updike when most people should – when I was about 13. Updike explained in an interview that he wrote his books aiming towards this existence as:

books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a …teenaged boy finding them, having them speak to him.

And that is how I discovered them. His books were depressing and yet exotic with a sad sexuality that I was enticed by but did not understand. I read through the Rabbit Angstrom series as well as a number of other minor works. Later, I rediscovered Updike in a novel which has scarcely been mentioned in his eulogies, Toward The End of Time, which seems to me to be exceptional. It takes place after the end of civilization and the fall of the American government due to a war with the Chinese. I still vividly remember the casual indifference of the narrator in what is, I think, a quintessential Updike quotation:

One advantage of the collapse of civilization is that the quality of the young women who are becoming whores has gone way up.

For me, this quotation demonstrates both the author’s humor, the misogyny of his characters, the world-weariness, the carnality, the enforced normalcy and mundaniety.

As a man who would go on to write 61 books, Updike had an almost pathological need to write as his obituary in The New York Times made clear:

I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to. The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.

Given this compulsion to write, it’s no surprise that Updike wrote in every form – short story, poetry, novel, criticism, nonfiction. The New York Times called him:

a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words

Updike seemed to finding what meaning he did in life from his art:

But the work, the words on the paper, must stand apart from our living presences; we sit down at the desk and become nothing but the excuse for these husks we cast off.

As his obituaries attempt to categorize his work, I’m not sure anyone can do better than his near-contemporary, the similarly prolific, Joyce Carol Oates:

John Updike’s genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies.

At his best, Updike described his work as giving “the mundane its beautiful due.”  These quotations below are either from my collection or in the various collections of Updike quotes online and in his obituaries:

  1. He had returned to the archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand. Bech had expected the pathos, the implied pecking of furtive typewriters, but not the defiant beauty of the end result. (jwcampbe.)
  2. I think “taste” is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves. (Wikiquote.)
  3. Sex is like money; only too much is enough. (The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.)
  4. To say that war is madness is like saying that sex is madness: true enough, from the standpoint of a stateless eunuch, but merely a provocative epigram for those who must make their arrangements in the world as given. (Wikiquote.)
  5. A leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take upon himself the woe of the people. There are few men so foolish, hence the erratic quality of leadership in the world. (The Telegraph.)
  6. An affair wants to spill, to share it’s glory with the world. No act is so private it does not seek applause. (The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.)
  7. He was bad at the business of life, which is letting go. (jwcampbe)
  8. To be President of the United States, sir, is to act as advocate for a blind, venomous, and ungrateful client. (The Telegraph.)
  9. In asking forgiveness of women for our mythologizing of their bodies, for being unreal about them, we can only appeal to their own sexuality, which is different but not basically different, perhaps, from our own. For women, too, there seems to be that tangle of supplication and possessiveness, that descent toward infantile undifferentiation, that omnipotent helplessness, that merger with the cosmic mother-warmth, that flushed pulse- quickened leap into overestimation, projection, general mix-up. (Wikiquote.)
  10. Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went. (ThinkExist.)
  11. Truth should not be forced; it should simply manifest itself, like a woman who has in her privacy reflected and coolly decided to bestow herself upon a certain man. (BrainyQuote.)
  12. I love my government not least for the extent to which it leaves me alone. (BrainyQuote.)
  13. We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one. (Conversations with John Updike.)