Quotes, and cheating

You know that thing in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Well, maybe you didn’t until just now, but that’s okay. You’ll come across it again sometime. It’s just about the only thing that anyone ever quotes from the book, and it appears right there on the first page: Page 1, Line 1. It is easy to feel daunted by other people’s use of quotations, but if someone quotes from a book don’t assume that they’ve read it. Don’t even assume that they’ve read as far as the bit they’ve quoted from (and you can include quoting from “Anna Karenina” in that).

As it happens, I did read “Anna Karenina”, when I was 16, so I could feel justified in using that quote, but it’s more accurate to say that my eyes were open and they passed across every line of every page, right through the 800 or more pages in the Penguin Classics Edition. How much do I remember? Well, there was something about a train, right?

When I was at school one of my more studious friends asked me the source of some Stevie Wonder lyrics. He wanted to refer to them in a speech he was writing for a public speaking competition, the kind of thing that I would never do (I would quote from pop songs all the time, but never enter a public speaking competition). “Music is a world within itself / with a language we all understand”. I said “I wish”, picking the wrong song from “Songs in the Key of Life”. It’s “Sir Duke”, as another, less studious, friend corrected immediately. For the rest of his quotes he was using a Dictionary of Quotations. I was surprised at how disappointed this made me feel: it seemed a bit like cheating. Couldn’t he find enough material from the books and plays that he had read and seen (as well as the pop songs that he’d heard)? We were only 14 or 15 at the time, so we didn’t have a huge amount of material to choose from, but even so, picking your way through a Dictionary of Quotations didn’t seem right to me.

At least his approach involved going to the library and finding a book. These days there are God knows how many “Inspirational Quotes” sites to make people seem more well-read and more knowledgeable about figures of historical importance than they might otherwise be. Need a quote about working smarter? There’s bound to be a few dozen to choose from. Let’s see, what did Churchill say? And Martin Luther King? Einstein? There’s bound to be some good stuff there.

Deep down I feel that you should only quote from things that you have read or seen. That doesn’t mean reading the whole book or seeing the whole play, movie or TV series, but at least try and find the quote in context. It’s easy with “Anna Karenina”. Just turn to the first page.

Recently I quoted some favourite lines from a Ted Hughes poem (“Fulbright Scholars”, in “Birthday Letters”) and emphasized that it’s from the first poem in the collection. It could mean that I never got any further than the first page, but (unlike with “Anna Karenina”) I have read it three times now, and dipped into it repeatedly. This is the only book of poetry for which that is true. I like it a lot, and the lines that I think of most just happen to be on the first page.

One of many books that I have bought and not read yet is Allison Pearson’s “I don’t know how she does it”. I did read the first few pages, in which the working mother who appears to have it all is working away, just before Christmas, on some shop-bought mince pies, to make them look like as if they’re homemade. When the book was turned into a movie (starring Sarah Jessica Parker; haven’t seen it) the reviews I read all described this moment as a defining characteristic. It looked like the film reviewers had read no further than the first few pages either.

And (returning to that Tolstoy quote) while we’re talking about happy people and unhappy people here’s something from Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”: “A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else. In his old age Dorrigo Evans never knew if he had read this or had himself made it up.” The words leapt out at me earlier today, right there on page 3. It’s another of the hundreds of books that I’ve bought but not read, but having finished “Changing Places” two days ago, and Douglas Coupland’s “Worst. Person. Ever” yesterday (having started it last month) maybe I’ll sustain this short burst of reading activity. 57 pages down, 390 to go.


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