Book of the week: Quit the 'quote unquote'

30th January 2004 at 00:00

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.

Read more in this week's TES Friday magazine

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