Sunday, August 15, 2010

What’s in a Quote?


What’s in a Quote?

Un bon mot ne prouve rien.

— Voltaire


So, we know what’s in a name (according to Juliet, not much); what’s in a quote?

Quotes are interesting.  I collect them for my “fortune file.”  Now, for those of you not from a Unix background, fortune is a program that spits out little fortune-cookie-like sayings, or (more relevant to our discussion here) quotes.  Typically you run it from your profile, meaning that every time you log in, you get a little nifty nugget of something.  The fortune program comes with a huge batch of files, each of which has a huge batch of quotes or sayings in it, and, when you run fortune with no arguments, you get a random quote from a random file.  But of course you can change that.  You can change the weighting of the different files, so that instead of being equally likely to receive a quote from Star Trek as you are to get a passage from the Tao Te Ching, you can favor some files, and completely eliminate others (I first discovered this when trying to eliminate the Zippy quotes, which personally I find just annoying, especially out of context).  Better yet, if you learn a little bit more, you can make your very own fortune files.  Currently, I have one giant file with all my favorite quotes in it, and I weight that so that anywhere from 50 to 70% of the time, my fortune comes from my collection.  And I also have it set so that it doesn’t only happen when I log in; any time I start a new terminal, open a new window in a terminal, or even shell out from another program.

Now, keeping a big file full of quotes is more trouble than you might imagine.  I have to collect the quotes.  I have to reformat them.  Every time I add a new quote, I have to regenerate the index that fortune uses to pick quotes quickly.  And I have to sync that file amongst all my various machines: my home server, my laptop, my work machine, the sandbox server at work, the server from my old company (well, before it crashed anyway) ...  You can see that I really must love my quotes to be going to this much trouble.  I was wondering the other day: why do I bother?

Good question.  I’m not sure there’s a single answer.  Different quotes have different reasons that I hold on to them.  For instance, some are nostalgia-inducing.  I have a whole series of these, generally referred to as “Barefoot Quote of the Day” (named after Barefoot Software, my old company).  Here’s one:

Barefoot Quote of the Day:

I’ll try to be good but it’s very hard for me because I’m very evil.

— Christy Brunker


Now, if you happen to know Christy, that’s quite funny.  And it has the added benefit for me personally of reminding me of the time in my life when those words were uttered.  Like when you smell a scent or hear a song that takes you back ...

Speaking of songs, that’s another category of quotes I collect.  Sometimes a song just has a line or three in it that catches the ear.  In these cases, it’s not even so much that the quote has a message as it is that the language lends itself to appreciation for the words themselves.  For instance:

They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen.

— Tori Amos, “Happy Phantom”, Little Earthquakes


There’s a certain poetry in that line that I always enjoyed.  No deep message, just a lyricism that’s pleasant to savor.

And then there are some quotes that are just amusing:

Randall: Do you want to be leader of this gang?
Strutter: No, we agreed: no leader.
Randall: Right.  So shut up and do what I tell you.

Time Bandits


I think it’s always good to have a few quotes that are there just to give you a chuckle.  Never can tell when you might need one of those.

But the best quotes are the ones that have something to say.  I’ve used a few of them in past blog posts—both directly and indirectly—to help illustrate my points, and I’m sure I will do so in the future.  But sometimes a quote can itself be the subject of a whole exploration ... like the one at the top of this post.

For those of us who don’t speak French, the translation is generally rendered “A witty saying proves nothing.”  So this is actually a quote about quotes, which gives it a nice self-referential quality that’s practically post-modern, despite the fact that it dates from a book Voltaire published in 1767.  And, really, if you’re going to write a blog post about quotes, you really have to put a quote in it, don’t you?  Because, as yet another quote tells us, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  And, following this vein of logic, if you’re going to post a quote in your post about quotes, oughtn’t it be a quote about quotes?

Perhaps the reason I like this quote so much, and wanted to use it for my first post about quotes, is that it appeals to my sense of paradox.  Because, on the surface, there’s not much to argue with.  A quote is, after all, just words that someone said.  It might have been a famous person, sure, but then again being famous certainly doesn’t make you any smarter than the rest of us.  Even if the source of the quote was someone for whom we have great respect, well, as the Buddha (is supposed to have) said: “Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.”  In the end, it’s just words, and it doesn’t matter how cleverly they’re put together, or how clever the person was who originally said it.  None of that makes it any more true.

But now you see the paradox.  We are now smart enough to reject the intrinsic value of a quote ... because a quote told us so.  In fact, in my supporting arguments for why we should believe the quote and not believe quotes, I used ... that’s right: another quote.  So obviously the quotes are good for something.

The truth is that quotes are often condensations, tightly-wrapped little nuggets of wisdom.  Extremely quotable folks like Mark Twain often tried out many different versions of their quotes until they got it just right.  Why not take advantage of all that hard work they already put into it?  I often find that a quote doesn’t actually say anything different than what I want to say, but it often says it more succinctly, more lucidly, with more flair and energy than I personally could muster up.  Plus, even without the fame factor, at the very least a quote shows that there’s someone else on the planet who agrees with me.  If that person happens to be a well-respected scholar or teacher, that’s just a bonus.

At their best, quotes make you think.  They force you to evaluate just whether it’s true that a witty saying proves nothing, or whether there’s something deeper hidden in the words.  A recognizable name attached to it is nice, but not necessary.  Many of our best quotes have no famous names—no names at all—attached to them, and many more have a plethora of names: the quote above about “dancing about architecture” has been attributed to Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, and Thelonious Monk, among others.  The great thing about a really good quote is that really it doesn’t even matter who said it: the wisdom or truth of the words is contained within them, regardless of any external attribution.

In the end, a quote is a message.  It may speak to you, cause an epiphany, light a fuse, spark a train of thought ... or it may not.  For, as the quote says:

There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times.

— Voltaire ... or Richard Whately

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