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Quotations in Action: My Piece on Round Church, Cambridge

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Quotations in Action: My Piece on Round Church, Cambridge

I recently discussed how, as a writer, I’m now trying to use quotations better–to not just quote the best lines, but place them in the context in which they originally appeared.

So, I’m very glad to have my latest piece in The Fortnightly Review, “Cambridge, Round Church,” published–because this is the first piece published elsewhere, where I’ve tried to extensively apply these new rules I’ve given myself regarding quotations.

Learning to Use Quotations Better

Learning to Use Quotations Better

In my last post, I discussed what I’m trying to do with my formal writing with regard to quotations–learning to use them better by not just remembering the best lines, but understanding their various contexts.

For example, I thought I might use a line from Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) for an upcoming project. So first, I had to add some scaffolding around the quotation in order to determine whether the line would even be worthwhile to reference or not:

As we cannot extricate ourselves from the labyrinth of illusion, let us at least see to it that our illusions are agreeable.

Arthur James Balfour, Theism and Humanism, (New York: Doran, 1915), pp. 140–41

After the quotation has been found, I then have to start asking myself questions. I tell myself:

When you quote—don’t just quote the quotation––engage with the thinking that went into the quotation through these several modes:

What mode of thinking went into the immediate sentences and clauses just before and just after the quotation?

Balfour’s philosophical works are aloof and muddling—this quotation can stand on its own, although it shows his skepticism against idealism.

What mode of thinking went into the entire work from which the quotation was pulled?

These words were part of Balfour’s Gifford Lectures, where one lectures on religion and philosophy in some way in Scotland.

What mode of thinking went into the entire work in relation to the writer’s other works as well as the writer’s general biography?

Balfour was a politician-aristocrat first, and only secondarily a philosopher. He would not have called or referred to himself as a “philosopher.”

What mode of thinking went into the entire work in relation to works by the writer’s contemporaries?

See below.

What mode of thinking went into the entire work in relation to history?

“On the fringe of philosophy stands the engaging figure of Arthur James Balfour, afterwards Earl of Balfour (1848–1930), who gave up to politics very great suppleness and tenacity of mind. He attracted attention as a writer with A Defence of Philosophy Doubt (1879), a book which was never taken quite seriously, because its title appeared faintly flippant. The Foundations of Belief (1895), Theism and Humanism (1915) and Theism and Thought (1925) were later excursions into philosophy; but they contributed nothing to current thought. Balfour was critical rather than constructive, and wrote mainly to clear his own mind.”

George Sampson, The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, Third Edition revised by R. C. Churchill, (Cambridge UP, 1970), p. 663.

I then must read over these questions and answers several times before I’m able to determine if the quotation can correctly be used in the way I want to use it. And once that is determined, the scaffolding can then be taken down.

A Brief Meditation on Using Quotations in One’s Writings


A Brief Meditation on Using Quotations in One’s Writings

Let this discussion on using quotation begin with a quotation from a recent book review that, for the past several months, continues to stir my thinking concerning writing.

Andrew Louth observes in his review (LA Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2023) of Ian McGilchrist’s two-volume The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (2021) that:

I [Andrew Louth] felt, however, that his [McGilchrist’s] appeal for their support [from authors whom McGilchrist quotes throughout his book] amounted too often to quotations and too little to real engagement with their thought…. It seems to me, however, that some of these [authors] are sold short when treated as a source for striking quotations. They were all thinkers; it will not do to pass over their modes of thoughts, even their arguments, and treat them as oracular sources.

While I look forward to reading McGilchrist’s seemingly mighty tome, I’m starting to feel that my own nonfiction writings (see here and here) generally contain too much quotation.

Sometimes I quote because I think someone else’s words have already said in the best way possible whatever it is that needs to be said. (But I also recognize a bit of a chip-on-my-shoulder feeling that I’m, intellectually, always playing “catch up” to those who are farther ahead of me.)

Quotation on an informal book blog like Bookbread is one thing, but in more formal writing––as the quotation above by Louth indicates––quotation can sometimes appear as a crutch to a writer’s own thinking.

Therefore, at least going forward in my own formal writings, I will try not just to quote the quotation, but instead, engage with the thinking that went into the quotation by focusing on these several modes:

  • When quoting, I will try to consider the thinking that went into the immediate sentences and clauses just before and just after the quotation.
  • When quoting, I will try to consider the thinking that went into the entire work from which the quotation was pulled.
  • When quoting, I will try to consider the thinking that went into the entire work in relation to the writer’s entire body of work, as well as the writer’s general biography.
  • When quoting, I will try to consider the thinking that went into the entire work from which the quotation came in relation to works by that writer’s contemporaries, as well as consider the spirit of the times in which those writers lived.
  • When quoting, I will try to consider the thinking that went into the entire work in its relation to all of human history.
  • Always remember the dictum from Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) that to quote a text is to interrupt its context, (“The Image of Proust,” Literarische Welt (1929) in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 202).

And just as I will try to be more considerate in any quotations I might use (and not just “name drop”), so too do I consider songs played on guitar (and sometimes sung) by me to be “interpretations” of pieces of music written by others—not cookie-cutter “cover songs.”

For example, here is a recent attempt of mine to interpret Harry Belafonte’s calypso tune “Jump in the Line”—an attempt that in no way tries to “play it the way you heard it” at the end of the film Beetlejuice (1989):


Write Word, Right Word, Wrong Word, Onward

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Write Word, Right Word, Wrong Word, Onward

A comparison on word usage and how the usage comes before the word gets spoken/written:

First, from our pal Emerson (1803-1882):

No man can write well who thinks there is any choice of words for him. The laws of composition are as strict as those of sculpture and architecture. There is always one line that ought to be drawn or one proportion that should be kept & every other line or proportion is wrong, and so far wrong as it deviates from this. So in writing, there is always a right word, and every other than that is wrong. There is no beauty in words except in their collocation. The effect of a fanciful word misplaced, is like that of a horn of exquisite polish growing on a human head.

(Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Vol. III (1826–1832), ed. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960–82),Vol. III (1826–1832), July 8, 1831, pp. 270–71)

Next from the apothogetic Karl Kraus (1874-1936):

If there is a misprint in a sentence and it still makes sense, that sentence was not an idea.

(Half-Truths & one-and-a-half truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Chicago University Press, 1976) p. 66)

Some Newish Advice for Writers, with the Aid of Chris Arnade

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

––Albert Camus, (La Peste (The Plague), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Knopf, 1957), ch. I, pp. 11–12.)

I have previously written about the work of Chris Arnade here and here. I continue to study him. He is teaching me to observe the world, as well as the people around me, better. And I hope, in turn, that that will help make me a better writer.

Arnade is teaching me that, as I writer, I need to walk, watch, write—in other words, stop looking at every occurrence as a “problem” to be solved, resolved, contemplated, pontificated upon; instead, just look and listen. I must learn to apprehend what I can accept and accept what I can apprehend. As Arnade puts it:

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives….

I also knew I would be reminded just how dramatically removed from each other the front and back row are. How little the front row gets these types of places, in a lived reality way, despite making claims to, and how little these places understand (or care about) what drives the front row, in an aspirational way….

There are plenty of very concerned articles in very serious periodicals about them, filled with suggestions that the residents themselves know little about.

But that isn’t what I want to focus on, because I walk to see beyond those problems….

To be blunt, as much as I enjoyed my brief time in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield, I ultimately left with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger. Few, if any, outsiders care about these towns. Beyond seeing them as problems that need to be solved.

(“Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

As a writer seeking to improve his craft, I need to beware of any sense in my soul of squirming at so-called sentimentality, quaintness. Admittedly, no, I don’t like it when callers call-in to my favorite local morning radio show, because they slow down the pace of the show, its ongoing conversation, they try to be funny and fail, or they espouse empty insults. Nonetheless, I need to pay attention to why they make me squirm. It has something to do with what Arnade is getting at:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage.

I as a writer I need to learn to not laugh at sentimentality:

A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

––Quintilian, (Institutio Oratoria Vol. II, trans. H. E. Butler, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920) (VI, ii, 35) p. 457.)

Instead, I need, as Seneca puts it, to start cultivating a relationship with poverty (whether economic or cultural) by writing about and listening to those in need. For:

Hunger will make you find even that bread soft and wheaty. One shouldn’t, accordingly, eat until hunger demands. I shall wait, then, and not eat until I either start getting good bread again or cease to be fussy about bad bread. It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little. Even the wealthy and the well provided are continually met and frustrated by difficult times and situations.

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969) Letter XVIII, p. 69; Letter CXXIII, pp. 226–27.)

Moreover, says Seneca:

You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

(Letters from a Stoic, Letter XLVIII, p. 96.)

And instead, as Marcus Aurelius advises, learn to live with those who have learned to live with the gods:

Live with the gods. To live with the gods is to show them at all times a soul contented with their awards, and wholly fulfilling the will of that inward divinity, that particle of himself, which Zeus has given to every man for ruler and guide—the mind and the reason…. (V, xxvii)

Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you…. (VI, xxxix)

Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind…. (VI, vii)

Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them…. (VIII, lix)

Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbour’s mind, and suffer him to enter into yours. (VIII, lxi)

(Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962.)

Finally, recall always C. S. Peirce, how: “The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake.” And that part of being a merciful observer and writer means that, with regard to whatever (and whoever) one is writing about, “it is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.”

(The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), “Private Thoughts, March 17, 1888,” p. 9; “Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105], p. 24.)

Is There Any Wisdom in Laughter? One Last Crumb from a What was Once a Work in Progress

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Here is a final crumb removed from what was once a work in progress, but is now a work needing but a final polish before being ready to be submitted. Just one more darling killed and culled and cut from the final draft:

Common sense says it’s often wise to remain silent, but is there any wisdom in laughter? Augustine of Africa mocked the legend of how, instead of crying, the infant Zoroaster of Persia laughed at the moment of his own birth (Confessions 21:16). “It is taught,” moreover, says the Talmud (Kethuboth 103b), that “if one dies laughing, it is a good sign for him.”* Socrates, before drinking deadly hemlock, made some around him cry, others laugh––though Socrates himself refrained from doing either. And though the Talmudic and Socratic approaches seem more akin to Chad’s style, one does suspect he too was the kind of child who would’ve laughed at the moment of his own birth.

*Quoting Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958; 1978) p. 281.

Crumbs Cut from Work in Progress

Here is a crumb I cut from a current work in progress:

It was also immediately evident upon my arrival that this was one of those “high time” moments for local mythology studied by the Romanian polymath Mircea Eliade and mentioned throughout Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s erudite tome A Secular Age (2007): “high” not only in any (and probably every) pharmacological-Dionysian sense, but one of those moments of keeping Austin weird in its original sense: a “high” once in a blue moon moment, where all the stars align so that both the making and retelling of myths are most potent, as in Christian liturgies that, during the holidays, retell the coming of the Messiah, or the secular “high time” moments felt at things like Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic concert in 1973 in Austin.

Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004) 97–98; Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 713.

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia



Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)


Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.



[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.

Meditations on Writing no. 1

book spines
Meditations on Writing no. 1

I’ve felt some anxiety lately over the quality of my writing. Maybe I rely too much on quotation, too much name-dropping…. Perhaps I need to focus more on personal experience––more personal family stories, anecdotes from my travels through Europe, or my discoveries in genealogy? I think my writing needs more personal experience of life, less pre-published exegesis from the library.

Perhaps it’s all a question of means over ends—what Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was writing about in 1780 with his biography of the poet Edward Young (1683–1765):

The attention which Young bestowed upon the perusal of books is not unworthy imitation. When any passage pleased him he appears to have folded down the leaf. On these passages he bestowed a second reading. But the labours of man are too frequently vain. Before he returned to much of what he had once approved he died. Many of his books, which I have seen, are by those notes of approbation so swelled beyond their real bulk that they will hardly shut…. (“Life of Young,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (c. 1779–81))

So Young did a lot of reading, found good passages and marked them, but ran out of time to use them. He couldn’t get back around to rereading what he knew was worth rereading so he could then use it in his own writing.

Young himself speculated on Shakespeare and Milton’s range of reading, and how it affected the quality of their work:

Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of [Ben] Johnson’s learning? … If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory, than he would have lost, by it. (Conjectures on Original Composition, (c. 1759), ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford: Manchester University Press; London: Longman’s Green & Co, 1918) 35, 36)

Yes, writers must read in order to be writers. But reading can impart no magical powers of writing onto the writer who reads. The quintessence will not be transmuted.