Robert Louis Stevenson

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To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.

Robert Louis (Balfour) Stevenson (November 13 1850December 3 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, and travel writer, and a leading representative of Neo-romanticism in English literature.

Quotes[edit]

Every man is his own doctor of divinity, in the last resort.
  • This is still the strangest thing in all man's travelling, that he should carry about with him incongruous memories.
  • There is no foreign land; it is the traveller only that is foreign, and now and again, by a flash of recollection, lights up the contrasts of the ear.
  • Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.
  • Every man is his own doctor of divinity, in the last resort.
    • An Inland Voyage (1878).
  • In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.
In every part and corner of our life, to lose oneself is to be a gainer; to forget oneself is to be happy.
  • I am in the habit of looking not so much to the nature of a gift as to the spirit in which it is offered.
  • In every part and corner of our life, to lose oneself is to be a gainer; to forget oneself is to be happy.
    • Old Mortality (1884).
  • Am I no a bonny fighter?
  • I have seen wicked men and fools, a great many of both; and I believe they both get paid in the end; but the fools first.
Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.
  • I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann.
  • Not every man is so great a coward as he thinks he is — nor yet so good a Christian.
  • Nothing like a little judicious levity.
  • Do you know what the Governor of South Carolina said to the Governor of North Carolina? It's a long time between drinks, observed that powerful thinker.
    • The Wrong Box, ch. 8.
  • So long as we love we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I would almost say that we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.
  • Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind, spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies.
    • Prayer, inscribed on the bronze memorial to Stevenson in St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.
    • Complete Works, vol. 26, Reflections and Remarks on Human Life, section 4.
  • The pleasant Land of Counterpane.
    • The Land of Counterpane, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Youth now flees on feathered foot.
    • To Will H. Low, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Vanity dies hard; in some obstinate cases it outlives the man.
    • Prince Otto, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Let any man speak long enough, he will get believers.
    • The Master of Ballantrae, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • There is but one art, to omit.
    • As cited in The Harper Book of Quotations, Revised Edition (1993), Ed. R. Fitzhenry, HarperCollins, p. 498 : ISBN 0062732137, 9780062732132

Aes Triplex (1878)[edit]

Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.
The Oxford Book of Essays ed. by John Gross (New York: Oxford, 1998) [Title is Latin for "triple brass," used by Horace]
  • Already an old man, he [Samuel Johnson] ventured on his Highland tour; and his heart, bound with triple brass, did not recoil before twenty-seven individual cups of tea.
    • 314.
  • We do not go to cowards for tender dealing; there is nothing so cruel as panic; the man who has least fear for his own carcase, has most time to consider others.
    • 314.
  • To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill.
    • 314.
  • It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to waste it like a miser. It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sick-room.
    • 315.
  • By all means begin your folio; even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.
    • 316.
  • All who have meant good work with their whole hearts, have done good work, although they may die before they have the time to sign it. Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind. And even if death catch people, like an open pitfall, and in mid-career, laying out vast projects, and planning monstrous foundations, flushed with hope, and their mouths full of boastful language, they should be at once tripped up and silenced: is there not something brave and spirited in such a termination? and does not life go down with a better grace, foaming in full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas?
    • 316.

Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers (1881)[edit]

Full text online
Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but principally by catchwords; and the little rift between the sexes is astonishingly widened by simply teaching one set of catchwords to the girls and another to the boys.
  • It seems as if marriage were the royal road through life, and realised, on the instant, what we have all dreamed on summer Sundays when the bells ring, or at night when we cannot sleep for the desire of living. They think it will sober and change them. Like those who join a brotherhood, they fancy it needs but an act to be out of the coil and clamour for ever. But this is a wile of the devil's. To the end, spring winds will sow disquietude, passing faces leave a regret behind them, and the whole world keep calling and calling in their ears. For marriage is like life in this — that it is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses.
    • Virginibus Puerisque, Ch. 1.
  • You could read Kant by yourself, if you wanted; but you must share a joke with someone else.
    • Virginibus Puerisque, Ch. 1.
Idleness, which is often becoming and even wise in the bachelor, begins to wear a different aspect when you have a wife to support.
  • Hope is the boy, a blind, headlong, pleasant fellow, good to chase swallows with the salt; Faith is the grave, experienced, yet smiling man. Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon a knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution. Hope looks for unqualified success; but Faith counts certainly on failure, and takes honourable defeat to be a form of victory. Hope is a kind old pagan; but Faith grew up in Christian days, and early learnt humility. In the one temper, a man is indignant that he cannot spring up in a clap to heights of elegance and virtue; in the other, out of a sense of his infirmities, he is filled with confidence because a year has come and gone, and he has still preserved some rags of honour. In the first, he expects an angel for a wife; in the last, he knows that she is like himself - erring, thoughtless, and untrue; but like himself also, filled with a struggling radiancy of better things, and adorned with ineffective qualities. You may safely go to school with hope; but ere you marry, should have learned the mingled lesson of the world: that dolls are stuffed with sawdust, and yet are excellent play-things; that hope and love address themselves to a perfection never realised, and yet, firmly held, become the salt and staff of life; that you yourself are compacted of infirmities, perfect, you might say, in imperfection, and yet you have a something in you lovable and worth preserving; and that, while the mass of mankind lies under this scurvy condemnation, you will scarce find one but, by some generous reading, will become to you a lesson, a model, and a noble spouse through life.
    • Virginibus Puerisque, Ch. 2.
  • Times are changed with him who marries; there are no more by-path meadows, where you may innocently linger, but the road lies long and straight and dusty to the grave. Idleness, which is often becoming and even wise in the bachelor, begins to wear a different aspect when you have a wife to support.
    • Virginibus Puerisque, Ch. 2.
  • Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but principally by catchwords; and the little rift between the sexes is astonishingly widened by simply teaching one set of catchwords to the girls and another to the boys.
    • Virginibus Puerisque, Ch. 2.
Falling in love is the one illogical adventure, the one thing of which we are tempted to think as supernatural, in our trite and reasonable world.
  • Falling in love is the one illogical adventure, the one thing of which we are tempted to think as supernatural, in our trite and reasonable world. The effect is out of all proportion with the cause. Two persons, neither of them, it may be, very amiable or very beautiful, meet, speak a little, and look a little into each other's eyes. That has been done a dozen or so of times in the experience of either with no great result. But on this occasion all is different. They fall at once into that state in which another person becomes to us the very gist and centrepoint of God's creation, and demolishes our laborious theories with a smile; in which our ideas are so bound up with the one master-thought that even the trivial cares of our own person become so many acts of devotion, and the love of life itself is translated into a wish to remain in the same world with so precious and desirable a fellow-creature.
    • Virginibus Puerisque, Ch. 3.
Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.
  • The cruelest lies are often told in silence. A man may have sat in a room for hours and not opened his teeth, and yet come out of that room a disloyal friend or a vile calumniator. And how many loves have perished because, from pride, or spite, or diffidence, or that unmanly shame which withholds a man from daring to betray emotion, a lover, at the critical point of the relation, has but hung his head and held his tongue?
    • Truth of Intercourse.
  • The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.
    • Truth of Intercourse.
  • There is a strong feeling in favour of cowardly and prudential proverbs. The sentiments of a man while he is full of ardour and hope are to be received, it is supposed, with some qualification. But when the same person has ignominiously failed and begins to eat up his words, he should be listened to like an oracle. Most of our pocket wisdom is conceived for the use of mediocre people, to discourage them from ambitious attempts, and generally console them in their mediocrity. And since mediocre people constitute the bulk of humanity, this is no doubt very properly so. But it does not follow that the one sort of proposition is any less true than the other, or that Icarus is not to be more praised, and perhaps more envied, than Mr. Samuel Budgett the Successful Merchant. The one is dead, to be sure, while the other is still in his counting-house counting out his money; and doubtless this is a consideration. But we have, on the other hand, some bold and magnanimous sayings common to high races and natures, which set forth the advantage of the losing side, and proclaim it better to be a dead lion than a living dog. It is difficult to fancy how the mediocrities reconcile such sayings with their proverbs. According to the latter, every lad who goes to sea is an egregious ass; never to forget your umbrella through a long life would seem a higher and wiser flight of achievement than to go smiling to the stake; and so long as you are a bit of a coward and inflexible in money matters, you fulfil the whole duty of man.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • The time would fail me if I were to recite all the big names in history whose exploits are perfectly irrational and even shocking to the business mind. The incongruity is speaking; and I imagine it must engender among the mediocrities a very peculiar attitude, towards the nobler and showier sides of national life.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances.
  • I shall doubtless outlive some troublesome desires; but I am in no hurry about that; nor, when the time comes, shall I plume myself on the immunity just in the same way, I do not greatly pride myself on having outlived my belief in the fairy tales of Socialism. Old people have faults of their own; they tend to become cowardly, niggardly, and suspicious. Whether from the growth of experience or the decline of animal heat, I see that age leads to these and certain other faults; and it follows, of course, that while in one sense I hope I am journeying towards the truth, in another I am indubitably posting towards these forms and sources of error.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • To hold the same views at forty as we held at twenty is to have been stupefied for a score of years, and take rank, not as a prophet, but as an unteachable brat, well birched and none the wiser. It is as if a ship captain should sail to India from the Port of London; and having brought a chart of the Thames on deck at his first setting out, should obstinately use no other for the whole voyage.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances. To love playthings well as a child, to lead an adventurous and honourable youth, and to settle when the time arrives, into a green and smiling age, is to be a good artist in life and deserve well of yourself and your neighbour.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
For God’s sake give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself!
  • All error, not merely verbal, is a strong way of stating that the current truth is incomplete. The follies of youth have a basis in sound reason, just as much as the embarrassing questions put by babes and sucklings. Their most antisocial acts indicate the defects of our society. When the torrent sweeps the man against a boulder, you must expect him to scream, and you need not be surprised if the scream is sometimes a theory. Shelley, chafing at the Church of England, discovered the cure of all evils in universal atheism. Generous lads irritated at the injustices of society, see nothing for it but the abolishment of everything and Kingdom Come of anarchy. Shelley was a young fool; so are these cocksparrow revolutionaries. But it is better to be a fool than to be dead. It is better to emit a scream in the shape of a theory than to be entirely insensible to the jars and incongruities of life and take everything as it comes in a forlorn stupidity. Some people swallow the universe like a pill; they travel on through the world, like smiling images pushed from behind. For God’s sake give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself! As for the others, the irony of facts shall take it out of their hands, and make fools of them in downright earnest, ere the farce be over. There shall be such a mopping and a mowing at the last day, and such blushing and confusion of countenance for all those who have been wise in their own esteem, and have not learnt the rough lessons that youth hands on to age. If we are indeed here to perfect and complete our own natures, and grow larger, stronger, and more sympathetic against some nobler career in the future, we had all best bestir ourselves to the utmost while we have the time. To equip a dull, respectable person with wings would be but to make a parody of an angel.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.
  • Age may have one side, but assuredly Youth has the other. There is nothing more certain than that both are right, except perhaps that both are wrong. Let them agree to differ; for who knows but what agreeing to differ may not be a form of agreement rather than a form of difference?
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • It is as natural and as right for a young man to be imprudent and exaggerated, to live in swoops and circles, and beat about his cage like any other wild thing newly captured, as it is for old men to turn gray, or mothers to love their offspring, or heroes to die for something worthier than their lives.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • I suppose it is written that any one who sets up for a bit of a philosopher, must contradict himself to his very face. For here have I fairly talked myself into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please; that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song of pure concent” to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.
    • Crabbed Age and Youth.
  • Just now, when every one is bound, under pain of a decree in absence convicting them of lèse-respectability, to enter on some lucrative profession, and labour therein with something not far short of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party, who are content when they have enough.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. ... They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • It is a sore thing to have laboured along and scaled the arduous hilltops, and when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement. Hence physicists condemn the unphysical; financiers have only a superficial toleration for those who know little of stocks; literary persons despise the unlettered; and people of all pursuits combine to disparage those who have none.
    But though this is one difficulty of the subject, it is not the greatest. You could not be put in prison for speaking against industry, but you can be sent to Coventry for speaking like a fool. The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.
  • Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • There is certainly some chill and arid knowledge to be found upon the summits of formal and laborious science; but it is all round about you, and for the trouble of looking, that you will acquire the warm and palpitating facts of life.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • A faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.
    • An Apology for Idlers.
  • To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
    • El Dorado.

Treasure Island (1883)[edit]

That's a summons, mate.

  • Fifteen men on the dead man's chest —
    Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

    Drink and the devil had done for the rest —
    Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
    • Ch. 1, The Old Sea-dog at the Admiral Benbow.
  • Doctors is all swabs...and that doctor there, why, what do he know about seafaring men? I been in places hot as pitch, and mates dropping round with Yellow Jack, and the blessed land a-heaving like the sea with earthquakes — what do the doctor know of lands like that? — and I lived on rum, I tell you.
    • Ch. 3, The Black Spot.
  • "What is the Black Spot, Captain?" "That's a summons, mate."
    • Ch. 3.
  • Pieces of eight, pieces of eight, pieces of eight!
    • Ch. 10, The Voyage.
  • Many's a long night I've dreamed of cheese — toasted mostly.
    • Ch. 15, The Man of the Island.
  • Them that die will be the lucky ones!
    • Ch. 20, Silver's Embassy.

A Child's Garden of Verses (1885)[edit]

  • In winter I get up at night
    And dress by yellow candle-light.
    In summer quite the other way,
    I have to go to bed by day.
    • Bed in Summer, st. 1.
  • A child should always say what's true
    And speak when he is spoken to,
    And behave mannerly at table;
    At least as far as he is able.
    • Whole Duty of Children.
  • Whenever the moon and stars are set,
    Whenever the wind is high,
    All night long in the dark and wet,
    A man goes riding by.
    Late in the night when the fires are out,
    Why does he gallop and gallop about?
    • Windy Nights, st. 1.
  • I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
    And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
    He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
    And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
    • My Shadow, st. 1.
  • The friendly cow all red and white,
    I love with all my heart:
    She gives me cream with all her might,
    To eat with apple-tart.
    • The Cow, st. 1.
  • The world is so full of a number of things,
    I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
    • Happy Thought.
  • Children, you are very little,
    And your bones are very brittle.
    • Good and Bad Children, st. 1.

Underwoods (1887)[edit]

Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
  • Of all my verse, like not a single line;
    But like my title, for it is not mine.
    That title from a better man I stole:
    Ah, how much better, had I stol'n the whole!
    • Title page poem
  • Let first the onion flourish there,
    Rose among roots, the maiden-fair,
    Wine-scented and poetic soul
    Of the capacious salad bowl.
    • Bk. I, To a Gardener.
  • Dear Andrew, with the brindled hair
    Who glory to have thrown in air,
    High over arm, the trembling reed,
    By Ale and Kail, by Till and Tweed.
    • Bk. I, To Andrew Lang.
  • Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie.
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.


    This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.
    • Bk. I, Requiem (the final sentence was used on Stevenson's Gravestone).
  • Who comes tonight? We ope the doors in vain
    • Bk. I, To Henry James.
  • My body which my dungeon is,
    And yet my parks and palaces: —
    Which is so great that there I go
    All the day long to and fro.
    • Pt. I, My Body Which My Dungeon Is.
  • There's just ae thing I cannae bear,
    An' that's my conscience.
    • Bk. II, In Scots, My Conscience.

Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896)[edit]

The untented Kosmos my abode,
I pass, a wilful stranger:
My mistress still the open road
And the bright eyes of danger.
Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them.
  • Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
    Nor a friend to know me;
    All I ask, the heaven above
    And the road below me.
    • No. I, The Vagabond, st. 4.
  • The untented Kosmos my abode,
    I pass, a wilful stranger:
    My mistress still the open road
    And the bright eyes of danger.
    • No. II, Youth and Love - I, st. 3.
  • I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
    Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
    • No. XI, Romance, st. 1.
  • Bright is the ring of words
    When the right man rings them.
    • No. XIV
  • In the highlands, in the country places,
    Where the old plain men have rosy faces,
    And the young fair maidens
    Quiet eyes.
    • No. XV
  • God, if this were enough,
    That I see things bare to the buff.
    • No. XXV, If This Were Faith.
  • Trusty, dusky, vivid, true,
    With eyes of gold and bramble-dew,
    Steel-true and blade-straight,
    The great artificer
    Made my mate.
    • No. XXVI, My Wife.
  • Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
    Hills of home!
    • No. XLV, S.R. Crockett.

Across the Plains (1892)[edit]

If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say "give them up," for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.
  • The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb up after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven for which he lives. And, the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action.
    • Ch. VII, The Lantern-Bearers.
  • We should wipe two words from our vocabulary: gratitude and charity. In real life, help is given out of friendship, or it is not valued; it is received from the hand of friendship, or it is resented.
    • Ch. IX, Beggars.
  • To be honest, to be kind — to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation — above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself — here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.
    • Ch. XII, A Christmas Sermon.
  • Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect duties.
    • Ch. XII, A Christmas Sermon.
  • If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say "give them up," for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.
    • Ch. XII, A Christmas Sermon.
  • Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much: — surely that may be his epitaph of which he need not be ashamed.
    • Ch. XII, A Christmas Sermon.
  • To make our idea of morality centre on forbidden acts is to defile the imagination and to introduce into our judgments of our fellow-men a secret element of gusto.
    • Ch. XII, A Christmas Sermon.

Quotes about Stevenson[edit]

  • Keats, entirely a stranger to error, could believe that the nightingale enchanting him was the same one Ruth heard amid the alien corn of Bethlehem in Judah; Stevenson posits a single bird that consumes the centuries: "the nightingale that devours time." Schopenhauer — impassioned, lucid Schopenhauer — provides a reason: the pure corporeal immediacy in which animals live, oblivious to death and memory. He then adds, not without a smile: Whoever hears me assert that the grey cat playing just now in the yard is the same one that did jumps and tricks there five hundred years ago will think whatever he likes of me, but it is a stranger form of madness to imagine that the present-day cat is fundamentally an entirely different one.
    • Jorge Luis Borges in "A History of Eternity" as translated in Selected Non-Fictions Vol. 1, (1999), edited by Eliot Weinberger

External links[edit]

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