Are we what we quote?

Word count: 327 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today’s article comes from Geoffrey O’Brien, general editor of the 18th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

For a time, when I was more active on Twitter than I am now, I would post about five quotes per day, by writers about writing. Readers loved this!  There is something about a quote on writing that is both uplifting and inspirational. The best received quotes, invariably, were the funny ones.

  • “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be,” said Mark Twain.
  • “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” argued Ernest Hemingway
  • “I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done,” admitted Steven Wright.

The current editor of Bartlett’s Familar Quotations has some thoughts on quoting, as you might imagine, and you can read his well-reasoned essay in his New York Times online article, “We are what we quote.” “There are days when a one-sentence aphorism by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg …  or when a single line from a John Clare poem … seems as if it could stand in for half the poetry ever written,” O’Brien says and I think he’s right. No matter what horror is happening in the world, our tendency to quote the clever and the ambitious is a habit we just can’t seem to shake.

Not that we should want to. I found it interesting to learn that many of the people we quote now were themselves collectors of quotations. O’Brien argues that quoting, in a sense, allows us to continue a conversation with our ancestors. We build something new based on what was built before. “Culture then is not a wall “over there” but the very tiles out of which your own thoughts are constructed,” he says.

I find his 1,000 word reflection on quotes to be fascinating, pithy and insightful. Be sure to check it out.

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