Quotes and Context

Seriously, reviews are coming, but I must blog about what I want to write about, or else I won’t blog at all!

John Green, a YA author and Youtube vlogger, posted a video that I want you to watch.

For those of you who didn’t watch it, he’s talking about a quote from one of his books being miscontextualized. “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?” the main character from An Abundance of Katherines says in the beginning of the book. The entire book, really, is him realizing that that kind of thinking is pretty silly, but the quote has been floating around the internet as some sort of Noble Truth. Yet Green isn’t being misquoted, because he did write that. Instead he is being miscontextualized, which he argues, and I agree, happens whenever you extract a quote or excerpt from, well, anything.

I often encounter this problem when I want to use a quote to illustrate beautiful or meaningful prose in a review. I know exactly which part made me swoon, but when I go back to look at it, I can’t use it! The words that I found so breath-taking are, in isolation, boring. Or perhaps they still have meaning, but it is different from the contextual meaning.

John Green suggests, then, that these quotes we pick say more about ourselves than the author. I kind of think this is obvious, and it’s his worries as an author that people will misunderstand him* that prompted him to say it explicitly. I’ve been wanting a tattoo for a long time and I know I want a literary quote, so I tend to look at quotes through that lens. Does this say so much about me that I want it on my body forever? Maybe that’s why I feel Green’s suggestion is obviously true!

*as well as his fears that technology and the internet are affecting our brains in negative ways, which is a whole other thing that I don’t quite agree with but is off-topic.

I think there are different kinds of beautiful quotes. Ones that only work in context, those that are more powerful when taken in isolation, and those that work in both settings. In my vast and undeniably superior experience, most quotes (at least the ones I like best) are in category one, some of in category three, and few are in the second. So, what are my favorite quotes and what do they say about me?

“I did not know I was so empty, to be so full.” – Peter S. Beagle from the Last Unicorn, a book that is full of the last kind of quote, beautiful in context and without. This is one of the best and something I could easily tattoo on myself, except one of my friends beat me to it. *sigh*

“At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.” – M.T. Anderson from Octavian Nothing. This quote affects me so powerfully that I almost decided this would be the one I tattooed on myself. But then I hesistated: is it too negative? Shouldn’t I have something uplifting or at least neutral as a permanent mark?

“There is a deepness in the sky, and it extends forever.” – Vernor Vinge from A Deepness in the Sky. This quote is solidly in the first category, I think. I would type out the paragraph is comes from because that would help, but you really have to know what a “deepness” is to get the full, breath-taking meaning. Which means you’d have to read the book (and I do recommend quite highly it if you like science fiction). Even though this quote is in the first category, even though it is so much better in context, it may be the one to become my tattoo. After all, the tattoo would be for me, not for anyone else, and I know how deep it is, how much it speaks to me. For me, the quote cannot be taken in isolation, because I know all of the beautiful context behind it.

“For me, the quote cannot be taken in isolation, because I know all of the beautiful context behind it.” Yes. That is what I’ve been wanting to say, what I wrote this post to figure out. My favorite quotes stand in for the material they come from, they distill themes and characters and all the things that make books good into one perfect sentence. The only catch is that you have to read the source material, but that sounds likes a pretty good bargain to me.

What about you? What are your favorite quotes, and do you think of those quotes in isolation or do they represent something bigger?


4 thoughts on “Quotes and Context

  1. See in some ways I totally agree and totally disagree! Cos yeah, when I first read “There is a deepness in the sky, and it extends forever”, I literally had to put the book down and spend five minutes just absorbing what I had read. And as you point out, if I were to just say it to something they *might* think, hey yeah, that’s cool, what? Or maybe they just wouldn’t care.

    But I think really there are a lot of quotes that are strong on their own. Of course now I can’t remember most of them…

    Oh, also, I’m assuming this context is wholly literary quotes? Wait, define literature. Books? Written stuff? “Literature”?

    “The gap between those who want games to entertain and those who want games to be art does not exist.” Raph Koster

    “We should be strive to be unceasing in our curiosity, rational in our explanations and accurate in our communication. We should value inquiry and the power of evidence to change opinions. We should be unflinching in our search for understanding and the desire to test the world around us.” Ok this one might be sort of cheating.

    “There is a deepness in the sky, and it extends forever.” …What?

    “The catchment of these cultured lives
    Was not in flesh
    And what we only knew,
    You felt,
    With all the marrow of your twisted cells.”

    And more. That I can’t remember! D=
    Maybe I should start keeping a log!?

    • You should start keeping a log! I have quote logs in a variety of places, which is, you know, not *so* helpful.

      I guess another thing I didn’t quite say in the post is that… Hm, how do I put this? It’s not just about context. It’s also about the emotional journey that you’re on while you’re reading a book. Like, I could explain about how the guy who says “There’s a deepness in the sky, and it extends forever.” is an alien whose race spends hundreds of years hibernating (sorry if my details are off, it’s been a while) and has to continually rebuild their society. I could describe the cultural significance of deepnesses and the tension between the progressive Sherkaner and the many conservatives that surround him. But the quote would still lack something, even if I read the speech that precedes it. It’s by reading the book, going on this journey with these characters, and finally reaching that climatic point… (That’s the whole point, of course, of writing. That’s one of the ways you can tell Vinge is a good writer.)

  2. Hah, since I read this post upon getting back I’ve been trawling for quotes in my books because I know there are many I love but, by god, I just can’t remember them. In Spring Awakening (I know I sound like a broken record but whatever) right before he shoots himself Moritz has this really great line about how it’s dark and he can’t go home, but of course all the copies I had are back at the library now.

    I do agree that most quotes are, if not entirely infused with significance by the rest of the work, are at least given a greater depth and importance to the reader by all that they’ve invested in the story…like, for example, one of my very favorite lines from Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, I think in “Agamemnon”:

    “Cassandra: Alas, poor men, their destiny. When all goes well
    a shadow will overthrow it. If it be unkind
    one stroke of a wet sponge wipes all the picture out;
    and that is far the most unhappy thing of all.
    (Cassandra goes slowly into the house.)”

    Of course, that might not mean nearly as much to someone who doesn’t know about Cassandra and her ability to see the future but the curse that nobody will believe her, and the fact that she has seen that Clytemnestra is going to kill her when she goes inside but can do nothing to stop fate. Or, similarly, Clytemnestra’s reflection on killing Agamemnon:

    “Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
    and as he died he spattered me with the dark red
    and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood
    to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
    of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.”

    Although I do think that one is slightly less dependent on the context, since mostly I like it because of the image of her smiling and talking about being spattered with blood like it’s a soothing spring rain.

    The more I think about it, though, the more most quotes I like do depend on the rest of the buildup to make them really effective, like in “The Shipwrecked Sailor” where the giant magical snake with eyebrows of lapis-lazuli tells the shipwrecked man how his family of snakes was burned up by a falling star and how he is “dead on account of them,” and then, being a future-seeing snake, he tells the man, “you will kiss your wife, you will see your home; this is more beautiful than anything.” And it’s just way more moving than anything I ever expected a giant magical snake with lapis-lazuli eyebrows to say in an ancient Egyptian text.

    Anyway, this got way longer than I intended, so that’s that.

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