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Quit the 'quote unquote'

Is a collection of quotations 'a riot of appalling folly' or simply 'a foolish thing well done'? Sean Lang grapples with figures of speech

History in Quotations. Edited by MJ Cohen and John Major. Cassell pound;30

"It is a good thing," wrote Churchill in My Early Life, "for an uneducated man to read books of quotations." Guess what? His words are on page one of this book of quotations. Churchill was far from uneducated; he had received a solid, if unimaginative, schooling at Harrow, and while stationed in India he devoured Gibbon, Macaulay, Plato, Socrates, Schopenhauer, Darwin and Malthus, but of course you don't learn that if you just read the quotation. That's the problem.

I hate hearing a speaker say, with that lordly air that always seems to accompany the act of quoting: "Was it not Voltaire who said..?" (as often as not, it wasn't) as if that proves anything. Was it not Ralph Waldo Emerson (and, according to this book, it was) who said: "I hate quotations.

Tell me what you know"?

In one sense you don't need a book of History in Quotations because quotation is what history already is. Historians quote from their sources and each other. They go into archives and jot down nice quotable phrases.

MJ Cohen and John Major have gone a step further by creating a subspecies they call the historical quotation and they have collected an astonishing variety. Historical quotation includes not just the "blood, toil, tears and sweat" kind of speech, but also Egyptian graffiti, the ancient Indian laws of Manu ("A woman does not deserve independence"), or Frederick the Great reproving his guards for not advancing: "Rascals, do you want to live for ever?" Perhaps not, they might have said, but until evening would be nice.

Undoubtedly this produces some revealing descriptions. There are beautifully observed eyewitness accounts, such as the British artilleryman's description of Waterloo: "Suddenly a dark mass of cavalry appeared for an instant on the main ridge, and then came sweeping down the slope in swarms, reminding me of an enormous surf bursting over the prostrate hull of a stranded vessel, and then running, hissing and foaming up the beach."

Sultan Alp Arslan treats the captive Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes with the full respect due to his rank, and inquires what he would have done had their roles been reversed. "The emperor replied honestly, 'I should have beaten you black and blue till you died'. 'I shall not follow your savage and cruel ways,' replied the sultan," and good for him. And there's no gainsaying the confidence of the 17th-century French historian who declared: "The kings of France were so pleasing unto God that he chose them to become his lieutenants on Earth." Enough to turn anyone's head.

The scope of the collection is enormous, from Ancient Mesopotamia to George W Bush declaring victory in Iraq. The entries are arranged chronologically and include later judgments: "a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery" (Edward Gibbon on the history of Byzantium); "What a decade! A riot of appalling folly that suddenly becomes a nightmare" (George Orwell on the 1930s). The index is a weak point: it lists people and themes but not keywords, so you can't easily track down a particular quotation.

But all books of quotations are deceivers; they look authoritative but are actually highly subjective. Who goes in; who stays out? What makes one part of a speech a quotation and not the rest of it? Quotations are always given out of context, which robs them of much of their meaning. Most readers will need some sort of introduction to the historical sections into which the book is divided, unless more people are familiar with ducal Burgundy or life on the Mongol steppe than I had realised.

The notes are helpful, but I could have done without the snide comments: "A notorious example of the Israeli refusal to countenance the Palestinians as a political reality" (on a 1969 quotation from Golda Meir). "No doubt his watchword was: 'Never speak well of the living'" (of US President John Adams; it wasn't).

You would be surprised at how foul-mouthed ancient Egyptians could be (the hieroglyphs on one tombstone translate as "Come here, you fucker!"), and a 10th-century view of Baghdad sounds eerily familiar: "Know that Baghdad was great in the past but is now falling in ruins. It is full of troubles, and its glory is gone." Tell that, as they say, to the Marines.

Churchill viewed the role of quotations more highly: "They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more." It would be nice to think that is what will happen with this book. But it won't, at least not in the education world. Teachers, examiners and textbook authors will just rifle it for extracts for document exercises, instead of doing it properly and going to look things up for themselves. Quotation is a lazy habit, and a catching one.

I once went to a wedding where they served endless canapes and, believe me, you soon get tired of them. Indisputably, Cohen and Major have pulled off an original stunt and have done it well, but was it not Dr Johnson who said, of Oliver Goldsmith's apology for beating a bookseller: "He has, indeed, done it very well; but it is a foolish thing well done"? (It was).

Sean Lang is director of the Historical Association Curriculum Project

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