In Defense of Quoting

by Tom Ingram

I have a confession to make that’s going to make me sound really stupid. I collect quotations. Right now I have a quote file with about nine thousand words in it. The authors vary widely, from classical intellectuals to movie characters and Internet figures.

Obviously, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this habit or else I wouldn’t do it. But why am I embarrassed to admit it? Surely collecting political ideas from Orwell and Mencken or humour from Pratchett or Parker is nothing to be ashamed of. It has to at least be better than stamps. But there’s a stigma attached to quoting that’s hard to shake.

Some of it’s deserved. I do most of my gathering at Wikiquote, whose collection is well-documented and useful. But occasionally you run across sites with unsourced quotes, “anonymous” and misattributed quotes, and more than a few complete fabrications. Confucius tends to feature prominently, and contributors are the kinds of people who think that it’s intelligent to point out that there’s an “if” in “life”. Not to mince words, hippies.

Criticism of quotation is usually done in the form of snappy sentences that are clear even if taken out of context. Here’s a brief sampling.

Beware of thinkers whose minds function only when they are fueled by a quotation.

–Emile Cioran

I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotation confesses inferiority.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

The next best thing to being witty one’s self, is to be able to quote another’s wit.

–Christopher N. Bovee (1857)

She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit.

–William Somerset Maugham (1926)

I always have a quotation for everything—it saves original thinking.

–Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.

–Dorothy L. Sayers (1936)

A witty saying proves nothing.

–Voltaire

Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.

–George Santayana

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

–Oscar Wilde

There are a couple common themes there. Per Wilde, Cioran, Sayers (twice!), Maugham, and Bovee, quotations are often used to mask the fact that one has nothing to say. My reading of the Santayana quote is that he’s in favour of wise sayings nonetheless, but it carries an unspoken criticism: you can find a quote that says absolutely anything if you look hard enough. Voltaire says that just because a phrase is punchy doesn’t mean it’s true or good.

Seeing Ralph Waldo Emerson criticize quotation is especially interesting, because he’s one of the most quoted writers ever. However, if you look deeper, you’ll find that he was a quoter himself, and not at all against the practice. “Tell me what you know” appears to be railing against quoting in general, but he was actually talking about people using friend-of-a-friend stories as evidence of immortality.

Likewise, “Quotation confesses inferiority”, when taken in context, doesn’t quite mean what it appears to. Emerson was saying that the reason we quote is because somebody else said it better first, and therefore by quoting someone you are marking them as superior to you.

Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the “Instauration” instead of the new book.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

This gives us two more criticisms of quotation. First, Emerson warns that quotation can make you superfluous, that the author who quotes Bacon in his preface is unnecessary when you could just go and read Bacon. The sequence of events that leads to Emerson being quoted against quotation is in itself a criticism of the practice: it’s easy to change the meaning of a sentence by removing the sentences around it.

Allow me to throw in my own two cents here. Quoting can give a narrow view of the quotee. To take our example and run with it, Emerson is one of the most quoted writers of all time. In fact, most people don’t know him from anywhere else. Anything he actually accomplished is overshadowed by this shallow fame. Emerson is, ridiculous as it sounds, chiefly a man who wrote quotations.

Quotation can also give false weight to an idea. I am a big fan of George Orwell*, but there have been several times that he was simply wrong. You could say that pacifism is pro-Nazi and that’s that, and attach Orwell’s name to it, and thus give the idea a veneer of intellectual substance it doesn’t deserve while remaining technically honest. Even worse, because it’s happened in real life, you could quote Orwell’s ill-advised forays into linguistics as actual fact and most people would believe you.

So, to summarize, our criticisms are:

  1. Quotations conceal a lack of original (or any) thought.
  2. You can find a quotation to support any idea.
  3. Quotability does not equal truth, and often good ideas will necessarily be long-winded because of their complexity.
  4. Quotation can render the quoter superfluous.
  5. Quotations can be construed as saying things they don’t actually say.
  6. Quotations can take attention away from the non-quotable bulk of an author’s work.
  7. Quotations can give a false air of authority to bad ideas.

Why We Quote

The simplest reason for quoting is Emerson’s given reason–that he and the quotee have both “heard the same truth, but they have heard it better.” If, for some situation, I can recall a Benchley quip that is perfectly appropriate, that I cannot improve upon in any way, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use the quote.

Great literature must spring from an upheaval in the author’s soul. If that upheaval is not present then it must come from the works of any other author which happens to be handy and easily adapted.

–Robert Benchley

Another reason is for illustration. When I put a quote in an article, it’s usually an inessential component that gives you a related point of view from a different author. It offers an implicit, often intentional, comparison between whatever I’m talking about and whatever the quoted author is talking about.

Several of the quotes I have in my file are to provoke thought. Nietzsche is good for this. He was a contrarian through and through and whether or not a Nietzsche quotation is palatable, agreeable, or true, it will most certainly be thought-provoking. Especially when an author says something surprising, they force you to explain yourself even if you’re on their side.

However, quotation is probably most often used as a form of self-expression. Of course the Confucius-quoting hippies are trying to express themselves. No doubt quoting Confucius makes them enlightened and open-minded, not to mention racially colour blind. The message can take a backseat to what it says about the kind of person who would agree with it.

But really, that’s what everyone does when they quote. I tend not to use quotes from ancient philosophers because they’re so hard to verify, so many are made up, and so many more are mystical pseudo-intelligent bullshit. But take a look at the core list of people I have quotations from and it paints a picture that is just as vivid. Penn Jillette, because I like his brash performer’s approach to rationalism. Paul Graham, because he’s right about just about everything. Chuck Klosterman, Tom Lehrer, HL Mencken, George Orwell, and, yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These names say something about the kind of person I am. Or, more accurately, they say something about the kind of person I like to be seen as, which in turn says something about the kind of person I am. So quoting, like clothing, is used both to tell people who we are and to convince them that we’re someone else.

Mitigating the Dangers

The criticisms of quotation are all conditional. The troubles they describe aren’t inherent in the act of quoting. They are pitfalls that catch you if you’re not careful. Like many activities, quoting isn’t inherently bad or good. It is what you make it. That said, how can you avoid the pitfalls?

It helps that many of them are related. A quotation that is intended to mask a lack of original thought will serve to render the author superfluous. Luckily for us, the reverse is true: a quotation that isn’t used that way won’t. The solution is simple: add something new. Be original or, failing that, be witty.

If you bring something new to the table, it’s clear that you’re not trying to mask a lack of original thought (since you’re demonstrating original thought), and it differentiates you from the quotee (if you’re having original thoughts, then the person who shuts the book and goes off to read Francis Bacon is missing something).

The effect of quotes overshadowing an author’s actual work is unfortunate, but on a grand scale there’s nothing we can really do about it. However, you can make a pact: as a reader or writer, if you find yourself coming back to the same author for quotations over and over again, pick up one of their books. This is how I found out about Terry Pratchett and Chuck Klosterman.

Numbers 2, 3, and 7 above are all related. Voltaire said that “a witty saying proves nothing”. However, another French Enlightenment figure had different ideas:

Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory.

–Denis Diderot

A witty saying doesn’t prove anything, but it isn’t meant to. That’s not what it’s for. A witty saying is meant to illuminate an idea and make it memorable. So yes, you can find a quotation to support any idea, but the idea should stand on its own. The truth of an idea isn’t the quote’s business.

As for quotations conferring authority, simply remember this: for any damn fool thing you can think of, some great intellectual has supported it. If the damn fool thing in question is eugenics, then every 20th century intellectual you could name supported it at one time or other. A bigger name on the quote doesn’t mean correspondingly big reasons to agree with it**. Remember that a quote isn’t concerned with proof, only illustration.

The problem of quotations being misunderstood or intentionally misrepresented is a tricky one that calls for another pact. I’ve run into this a lot, where someone has heard the last sentence of John Donne’s Meditation XVII, “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee,” and assumes that the bell is the most significant thing there and it must connect into some grand historical mythology about bell-ringing and live burials. There are two things that could alleviate this misconception: first, get some better reading comprehension, and second, look at it in context***.

On top of that, I made a rule for myself: never quote someone you know nothing about. For the authors I quote frequently, I’ve usually read the work I’m quoting from (and often I collected the quote directly, without consulting an online source). But for every author in my list, I have enough knowledge of them to put their words in some kind of context and understand where they’re coming from. You might be able to put one over on me by chopping off an important sentence at the beginning or end of a passage, but if the result is something that contradicts what I know about the author, it will confuse me at least enough to go fact checking.

As I said before, it is what you make of it. Quotation can be used for lying and misrepresenting, or it can be something beautiful. You just have to do it right.


* Chiefly his essays. Orwell was a brilliant commentator and critic. While Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are two of the most significant novels of the last century, they are for various reasons unpleasant to read. [return]

** It helps not to think about your heroes as infallible. For every person you admire, find something stupid or horrifying they were in favour of. As long as they’re sufficiently famous, you won’t have any trouble. [return]

*** If you actually read the whole paragraph, it’s obvious that Donne is saying, “We are all a part of the whole, and if the least of us dies we all die a little. Therefore, the funeral bell is your business; it tolls for you.”

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

–John Donne, Meditation XVII

[return]

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