Sooner or later, all good dinner table debates reduce themselves to semantics. Yes, John Stuart Mill argued that your freedom only extends to the point where you do harm unto others, but what is harm? Sure, you can say that the Beatles were the best rock band of all time, but what do you actually mean by best? This kind of futile parsing is the raison d’être of Gary Saul Morson’s new book, a work devoted to the arcane matter of what is and isn’t a quotation.

At its heart, The Words of Others is a case for the quotation as a literary form: a self-enclosed unit of thought that identifies itself, as such, independent of context. If I may quote: “A quotation repeats the words (or actions or other defining features) of another as the words of another.” It must also have the ineffable virtue of “quotability:”

One reason that quotations must be quotable is that they function as complete, if brief, literary works and so, like all literary works, must be capable of standing on their own.

The fact of quotability, in turn, endows a quotation with literariness—“the ability to be understood and appreciated outside the context of

its origin.”

By this logic, none of what I have quoted here from The Words of Others is actually a quotation; they are extracts. They fail Morson’s essential test: These snippets hold no value stripped from the work of which they are a part. That John F. Kennedy may have borrowed his hallowed “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” from Justice Holmes is beside the point: He spoke the quotation. The fact of JFK’s having said these words is essential to the quotation’s inherited meaning and its circulation within American cultural memory. It doesn’t matter that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake!”

It’s hers.

With these rules in place, Morson gives us a tour of the use and abuse of quotation throughout the ages. His particular grievance is with the quotation police, the anthologists devoted to debunking the received wisdom of who said what when. The king of this apparently robust genre is one Ralph Keyes, author of (among other titles) Nice Guys Finish Seventh. Here Morson brings the snark: “Apparently,” he deadpans, “we are all victims of constant and colossal verbal swindles.”

His disdain notwithstanding, Morson’s efforts to debunk the debunkers draws forth some of his book’s more original lines of argument. What Keyes and his cohort fail to understand is that “authorship may be intrinsic to a quotation.” The very value of a quotation derives from the force of the personality who issues it. It’s irrelevant, then, that the phrase “iron curtain” can be traced to the Russian writer Vasily Rozanov in the 1920s: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.—Winston Churchill.” That dash constitutes an integral part of its legacy.

This kind of patient close reading redeems what occasionally feels like a thankless exercise. Morson is a Slavic scholar by training and The Words of Others becomes most interesting when he allows himself to indulge his more scholarly impulses. Having quoted a long selection (but not quotation) from Anna Karenina, he gives a thoughtful analysis of the ways in which the realist novel uses layered, indirect quotation to reveal how much individual consciousness relies upon borrowed language. Here is an extract of the selection:

And for all that, at the same point in her memories, the feeling of shame was intensified, as though some inner voice, just at the point when she thought of Vronsky, were saying to her “Warm, very warm, hot.” “Well, what is it?” she said to herself resolutely.

The liberties Tolstoy takes in intertwining his commentary with Anna’s own thoughts, which in turn borrow language (“Warm, very warm”) from a childhood game, show the extent to which the very fabric of thought is a function of quotation.

“Passages like these .  .  . depend on the fact that quotationality comes in degrees, and so the author can choose how much to use at any given point. They also depend on the possibility of quoting from more than one voice at the same time,” Morson writes.

A similarly illuminating moment arises in Morson’s discussion of translated quotation. Turning to the famous line of Sigmund Freud, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,” Morson takes aim at the pedants who would argue for the “correct” version—that is, the English version taken from the widely read James Strachey translation: “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious activities of the mind.” It’s hard to argue that there is such a thing as a correct version when the most commonplace translation already takes substantial liberties with the German, and when Freud himself supplied the Latin for “royal road” (Via Regia). Which one is right? In this case, to insist on fidelity to the original is to miss what the quotation has to offer.

Morson’s dalliances with the academic are far more satisfying than his efforts to theorize the obvious. Compare these detours into the literary canon with Morson on the editorial voice of quotation anthologies:

[W]e can discern a continuum from minimal to maximal personal imprint of any quoter. Reference works seek to minimize this imprint. They do so by employing multiple consultants, by instructing each editor to build on predecessors, or by choosing arbitrary principles of organization that render the search for the editor’s voice difficult.

Lest the point be unclear, Morson reminds us that since passing on, Bartlett has had little to do with Bartlett’s. He might as well have clarified that Google is an algorithm.

There is only so much one can say about quotation, and so Morson can’t help but stray into generalities and repetitions (Kennedy’s inaugural speech crops up twice by page 15). By the time he gets to “processual” quotations—those that are definitionally incomplete, or works in progress—one can feel him hitting the limits of his subject. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “One has to secrete a jelly in which to slip quotations down people’s throats—and one always secretes too much jelly.”

Amelia Atlas is a writer in Cambridge, Mass.

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