The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

My Photo
Name:
Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Friday, May 05, 2006

On The Use Of Quotes

What does it mean when an essayist uses quotes?

Don't get me wrong, I know that they are fun to gather and read. But I am intimidated when an essayist, or someone who writes a book on a subject, peppers it with lots of interesting quotes from other authors.

I used to think, "Wow, this guy is SO well-read! Organized, too! He must do his reading with a box of 3x5 cards by his side! How can he get through so many books when he stops every six pages or so, copies the quote, and files it under the appropriate heading?"

Then somebody gave me a gift: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. I thought, "Oh. THAT's how he does it." But I was disappointed. Isn't that like cheating, or something?

Read more...

And that's why I rarely use the book, because I always felt like it would be dishonest.

I ran into a discussion on a blog one time recently where they were talking about Intelligent Design, and some critics were vehemently attacking some of the ID proponents, in reference to the way they quoted scientists. "It's quote mining!" one of them fumed. Hmm. "Quote mining"--I guess that's a bad thing.

It got me thinking: Suppose I find a great quote from, say, Marshall McLuhan, in somebody else's book. I believe it to be presented in the proper context, and it serves my purpose, so I quote it. If I don't attribute the source I found it in "(Quoted in Flanigan & Holladay, Developing Style: An Extension of Personality)," do I dishonestly convey the impression that I have read the McLuhan book in which it appeared?

In short, does the presence of quotes in a book say, "I read these books by these guys, and they said these things that support my thesis"? Or does it simply say, "I found some great quotes by different guys that support my thesis"?

What do you think?

3 Comments:

Blogger Preachrboy said...

I think you are getting overcautious here.

I don't think you are dishonest unless you are claiming the work as your own. Quoting from an indirect source doesn't necessarily imply you read the original work. But then again, I am no scholar.

But you are speaking as an essayist, and I am thinking as a preacher. In a sermon, I am much "looser" with my quotations and citatations. I will often say, "a recent USA TODAY poll said..." or refer to "a well-known catholic priest" or "an ancient church theologian" without mentioning the name. Why? Because it wouldn't mean anything to my hearers anyway, who are not versed in famous catholics and the patristics. I suppose if I were preaching to preachers that might be a different story. My rule of thumb, though, is not to claim something as my own that isn't.

May 5, 2006, 5:36:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Fremer said...

Well, howdy, preachrboy! Good to hear from you again. You're absolutely right about sermons. Attributing sources in detail there comes off like a particularly snobbish form of name-dropping: "er, you DO read Hermann Sasse, don't you?--"

As to "not to claim something as my own that isn't," you're spot-on. That's why I eschew illustrations of the sort that are published in collections. On the rare occasion where I tell a made-up story, I will call it what it is. But I hate it when a preacher says "A man was out walking his dog one day..." and I know he didn't "come by it honestly," through experience or broad reading, but got it in his subscription of Pulpit Helps.

May 5, 2006, 7:47:00 PM  
Blogger Joshua Sowin said...

"What does it mean when an essayist uses quotes?"

From my understanding an author can use quotes to (1) bring a sense of the “great conversation” to the argument (e.g., showing that the discussed idea has a history and the essay or book is adding to the conversation); (2) to say something better than the author can say; (3) to bring in support of what the author is arguing; (4) bring another viewpoint to discuss or refute.

I’m sure there are more ways to use quotes in essays, but those are the ones that seem most common. I took a look in a few writing books I own, but they did not say anything about how to use quotes—only when to use quotation marks! A strange omission. It seems to be that how one uses a quote is more important than the proper use of quotation marks!

"Then somebody gave me a gift: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. I thought, "Oh. THAT's how he does it." But I was disappointed. Isn't that like cheating, or something?"

I’m not sure that’s fair to assume that is “how they do it.” Certainly, that is how some do it—especially modern writers. But when we read something from a “classicist” or a “well-read person,” there is a high probability that they are using a quote that they found “on their own.” Either way, using a quote in an essay or book is meant to enrich it—even if they do not find it on their own, they are not “cheating.” Can one not use what they did not discover on their own? Didn’t someone recommend the book to the author? Does anyone really find anything on their own? It is cheating, of course, to use quotes for fill or only to make the author appear “well-read”—but usually it is obvious when quotes are used in such a haphazard way.

"If I don't attribute the source I found it in "(Quoted in Flanigan & Holladay, Developing Style: An Extension of Personality)," do I dishonestly convey the impression that I have read the McLuhan book in which it appeared?"

It is all on how one states the quote and what kind of citation is expected. In academic essays or books one is expected to cite sources. There are proper ways to cite quotes quoted in another book. If it is a more casual essay and citations are not expected, then it is not dishonest to simply put the quote without attribution—unless of course, one says “While I was reading Walden, I stumbled upon this quote” and yet has never read Walden. That is dishonest.

"In short, does the presence of quotes in a book say, "I read these books by these guys, and they said these things that support my thesis"? Or does it simply say, "I found some great quotes by different guys that support my thesis"?"

It can mean both. It is not an either/or. Speaking for a personal point of view, in an academic paper, I usually mean the latter—these days, most modern writers worth citing in a stuffy academic setting are usually not worth reading (I realize that is stereotypical, but I think it generally true in our specialized world). However, at least in the essays I have been writing lately, I cite an author because there is a history to it—it has made a difference in my life, it has changed or challenged the way I think, and I pass it on to others to enjoy. But if there is a quote that I read, and I think it is good and helpful, even if I had not read the entire book, I still feel the liberty to use it.

By the way, all the quotes I post on my site are from my own reading. They are almost always direct quotes from a book—there are a few secondary quotes. I post them because I enjoyed them or found them interesting, and hope others will also. Sometimes I don’t even agree completely with one, but think it is worth thinking about. So few read good books in our day, that I hope it encourages others to read voraciously.

My personal system is to mark quotes out with a “Q” in the margin. Then, when I have finished reading the book, I put it in a pile that I know I need to type quotes out from. When I get in the mood, I go through them. That works much better for me than always writing them down on a notecard or other such techniques. I suppose that wouldn’t work for a library book, though!

May 5, 2006, 8:54:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home