Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quote Quota

I get serious when it comes to writing. There are just certain minimal standards that I force myself to abide by. I try to make sure that I employ proper grammar and a decent variety of vocabulary. I can't bear to have the same noun or verb appear more than once in close proximity, and I just have to obey the rules of the English language as I understand them. Sometimes I may slip up. Beyond those basics, there are other things I feel are important. One is how I handle the integration of someone else's work. I don't do it much. A top priority has been keeping this blog as a pure repository of my own efforts, and so while I might make reference to something external, there are few occasions where I might quote someone's words verbatim. It sometimes happens, it seems to me. Mainly it happens in the title of my posts, although not this time, as wordplay won the day again.

When I do that, there's just one rule that comes into play. I have to really know the material from which the quote is drawn. I could probably override that and allow people to assume based on my reputation for being knowledgeable that I am familiar with the source of a quote when I'm not, but I don't do that. I do my best to stick to lines which come from something with which I'm intimately familiar. That way, if the impossible ever happens and someone engages me on the subject of something I've quoted, I don't wind up looking like a fool when I am entirely unaware of any contextual information surrounding something which I've intimated that I know well. That feels like a lie to me, so I try not to do it. I don't, therefore, consult Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations. I used to enjoy reading it, and now I better enjoy reading the things that are cited in it.

Of course, I don't know all the great lines and passages that get used. It often happens that I see some quote on Facebook or elsewhere that I don't know. Most often, I don't care for them, but sometimes I read something I like a lot. My first move is not to parrot it, but to research it. If I love it enough, I read the entire thing it came from. There's a fantastic passage from a Teddy Roosevelt speech which it is now quite fashionable to quote from. He speaks of how the critic matters less than the man who is actually out there doing something. It's a great quote. I had heard it first from Richard Nixon's resignation address a number of years ago. I never thought to repeat it until recently, when I decided to read the speech from which the line comes. It's a rather lengthy one in which Roosevelt says plenty more than the one thing. Beyond sound bites, he gives a substantial, well-reasoned and still-relevant discourse. I invested the time it took to read the whole thing, and then I felt justified in quoting it.

As I said however, quoting is not my thing as a first resort. I guess it's done for certain reasons. One might do it as a way of bragging about one's experience in the library, but I seldom seem find myself in situations where that has a great deal of currency. One might do it in an attempt to offer insight, but isn't that like trying to nourish someone with a single bite from a sandwich? I think that mostly people seem to employ quotes in an effort to define themselves and their personality. Doesn't that sound crazy? What sense is there in defining yourself with someone else's ideas? I think it offers a definition not quite as flattering as the person might be hoping for. I'll own up to having as a 'favorite quote' on Facebook the last words of Pancho Villa. If you know them, maybe you'll appreciate my motive in that selection.

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