One of the things I miss in this century of instant information is the slow, patient, meticulous journey through Nemo’s Almanac I used to take. The recent results make it clear: many competitors are doing Nemo’s by quick internet searches and the quotations have become very obscure. No more loss leaders! No more jolly give-aways from Keats’s Odes or “Mariana” or Shakespeare’s sonnets! No, it’s moving towards a test of one’s computer skills. 2016 has fewer recognizable quotations than 2010 did.
I now have 47 copies of Nemo’s Almanac and I spent my younger years trying to really learn literature, both for its own sake, and for the sake of doing well at Nemo’s.
Each year 73 quotations, in the English language, are published in a slender booklet. Going through Nemo’s when I was young taught me a lot: I was able to learn how to make a distinction between Charles Cotton and Charles Churchill. It’s a heady feeling to be able to pick a snatch from Ralph Roister Doister out of a group of quotations. George Crabbe and John Gay are distinctive in their settings and subjects. Fishing for Erasmus Darwin gets easy with some experience.
I used to spend my lunch hours and many of my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor of the library stacks simply reading and reading. After a while, one gets a clear sense of which century anything might be from. Snaring a difficult quotation is an intoxicating experience. When I first encountered Nemo’s there was no named editor, just Sycamore Press. Then John Fuller took the mantle and really shaped the almanac so that each month had a very distinct and often witty theme. His superb work was carried on by Alan Hollinghurst, Gerard Benson, and now Nigel Forde. My 1970 edition cost 25p. The 2016 edition is up to 3 pounds.
I remember when I lusted after breaking the score of 500 and then I did and then I managed to break 600 and then 650! And now anyone with a computer can get a perfect score in just an hour or two!
John Fuller remarked in the 1985 issue that “There are three kinds of quotation: (a) the ones you know, or feel you ought to know, or suspect that everyone else knows; (b) the ones that you can pursue in the confidence that stylistic and historical detective work will pay off; and (c) those that you have come across before.”
April, 1984 is one of my favorite months: each quotation is prose written in verse, such as Lewis Carroll’s remarks that “Any fairly practiced writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose for hours together, in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
The most difficult quotations were found by one or two keen eyes. I remember one that nobody got: a poem by John Ashbery (July, 1989). Alan Hollinghurst notes that one competitor was eloquent about his months of fruitless seaching for the Ashbery. And I just “googled” this quotation from 1989 and found it in less than 30 seconds!
After 125 years there seems to be no easy solution for Nemo’s: instead of it being a friendly competition for those with the best literary memories and widest scope of reading, it’s now a competition for those who have the fastest computers. And yet another “où sont les neiges d’antan” moment for me.
I spent my youth intoxicated by quotation-hunting; my drug of choice was Nemo’s and thanks to Nemo’s I have a lot of wonderful quotations stored in my head! But it now seems quaint to say earnestly to a partner, “You take the 17th century and I’ll read in the 18th century” or “You read through Chuzzlewit and I’ll read through Nickleby” to snare July’s fifth quotation.
Nemo’s has been my Yale College and my Harvard. I still enjoy it. I am introduced to new authors: last year had Thomas Lisle, Maurice Lindsay, Gifford, Evan Lloyd, Sean Jennet. Without Nemo’s I never would have encountered the excellent work of UA Fanthorpe, Alice Oswald, Gillian Clarke, Ian Duhig, for example. But the number of active competitors has gone down from a few hundred to about 25.