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):


Three Poetic Pieces I Read in 2020

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Currently, I’m about half-way through Quintilian (35–100 AD), who is teaching me rhetoric, and while reading him, I recalled this passage that had previously read from Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956):

The reading of the poets recommends itself not only through the delight and refreshment which accompany it; it inspires the mind, gives sublimity to expression, and teaches the orator to influence the emotions of his audience. To be sure, it must not be forgotten that poetry* is close to epideictic (not to forensic) oratory….

*Quintilian uses the neutral expression “hoc genus” (X, 1, 28), which is presumably to be completed by “eloquentiae.” Or is it used absolutely? Ordinarily he says “poetae.” Only once (XII, 11, 26) does the word “poesis” appear, and it is extremely rare elsewhere in Latin. Horace has it once (Ars poetica, 361), but in the meaning “poem.” Poetica or poetice is also rarely “poetry.” Neither Roman antiquity nor the Latin Middle Ages had a current word for poetry.

(Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953; Seventh Printing, 1990) p. 437)

I find comfort in that last line, because I get very uncomfortable trying to critically understand or analyze what we in 2021 call “poetry.” Yes, Coleridge’s definition of “the best words in the best order” is a good start, but hardly takes us (those of us who did not grow up reading, writing, reciting, translating poetry) very far toward understanding or appreciating the medium—particularly what contemporary poets are trying to do in and with the form.

A lot of modern poetry (post 19th century) I just don’t get. (I hear little rhythm in much of Yeats.) But here are three strong poems that caught my eye and ear this past year. I don’t want to quote from them, because to do that would affirm Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)’s theory that to quote a text is to interrupt its context. (“What is Epic Theatre?” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York:Schocken Books, 1968) p.151).

Three strong poems recommended by Bookbread:

I strongly encourage any and all readers to check out these powerful works.

Commentary on Proust – No. 2

bookbread typewriter

Commentary on Proust – No. 2

“There was no time for memory.”

–Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)[1]

For critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Proust’s involuntary memory is not based neither on one’s experiences nor the cues that trigger such involuntary memory. Instead, Proust’s involuntary memory is much closer to the act of forgetting.[2]

Benjamin also maintains that Proust’s asthma contributed to his long, windy sentences:

Proust’s syntax rhythmically, step by step, enacts his fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the crushing weight of memories.[3]

Victor E. Graham (1965):

One of the fundamental aspects of Proust’s style is his use of metaphor or images. He believed that beauty or truth can only be expressed obliquely and this is why he used clusters of images or strings of morphemes to focus on the truth by a sort of stylistic convergence….[4]

Robert Soucey (1967):

Proust felt strongly, however, that books should not be approached as if they provided definitive answers to all life’s questions, as if they were Holy Writ….[5]

Proust believed that reading as a spur to day-dreaming was one of literature’s most vital functions….[6]

There is no glorification of speed-reading in Proust; for one thing, it would allow no time for day-dreaming….[7]

Proust suggests that good reading rather than being an escape from reality is a means of experiencing it more fully, a means of sharpening one’s intellectual and emotional awareness of life. In this, the act of reading is not unlike the act of creating. [8]



[1] Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. NY: Random House. 1953. (1947.) “Chapter 18” 294.

[2] Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. NY: Schocken Books. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. 1968. “The Image of Proust” 202.

[3] Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” 213–14.

[4] Graham, Victor E. “Proust’s Alchemy.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 60, No. 2. (April 1965.) 197–206 at 199.

[5] Soucy, Robert. “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading.” The French Review. Vol. 41, No. 1. (October 1967.) 48–59 at 49.

[6] Soucy, “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading” 50.

[7] Soucy, “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading” 50.

[8] Soucy, “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading” 59.



Fun and Philosophy with Martin Buber

bookbread pencil shavings


What’s not to like about Martin Buber? Walter Benjamin, Walter Kaufmann, Gershom Scholem, Franz Kafka, Leo Strauss et al answer that question in Benjamin Ivery’s interview with Dominique Bourel in The Forward:

Buber is often between two fields. He writes too well to be a philosopher, and that unsettled people.

Read it all here.