This week, as people raced to make their opinions known on the interwebs about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, an interesting happened: an unofficial Mark Twain Quote-Lovin’ Society was informally formed. (And, oh yea, a bunch of people wound up misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr., thanks to Jessica Dovey)
People are so quick to quote the classics, the icons, these days. MLK (incorrectly), Mark Twain (turns out…incorrectly as well!), Shakespeare, Ghandi, Your Momma. But, I wonder: Who among us just has famous quotes floating around in the synapses of our brains? Not I! I have to Google that stuff most of the time!
There was once a time when books like “1,000 Famous Quotations” or “Axioms from the Sea” or “Quotes for Dummies” would be popular (and by ‘popular’ I mean, most homes would have at least one copy of a book of famous quotes [usually sitting idle next to your 1968 edition of Encyclopedia Brittanicas], and you’d often find stacks of such tomes in the bargain bins at the local bookstore, usually around Christmastime).
On my Facebook newsfeed the day of Bin Laden’s killing, it was a toss-up. People either rallied behind the King (loyal subjects, they), or behind Twain. Then, sadly, it turned out, people weren’t just incorrectly cutting/pasting the wrong quote from Dr. King, but the other faction was carbon copying the wrong attribution for the Twain quote. Twasn’t said by Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens; that was a quote by Clarence Darrow (he of ACLU fame).
Let me say again that yea, these days I would also have to take to the internet to track down something that I wanted to quote (especially if it was said by a famous person during a speech, or in an interview, or from anything else that would have needed to be transcribed from the oral). If it’s something from a book, depending upon the length of said-reference, I think I could probably come pretty close to an exact quote. If it’s a song lyric, then no sweat.
There are very few authors that come to my mind who I think I could quote accurately, or off-the-cuff: Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Brett Easton Ellis. Yes, I know, one of these things is not like the other, but I tend to read (and have re-read) many Ellis novels. Parker and Wilde, however, are the perfect examples of literary sound bites. Both were so painfully clever wordsmiths, they could often pack several great ideas into one neat quip. Twain? For me, not so much. Which is sad, since the Kennedy Center has The Mark Twain Prize for Humor, and it’s televised! Hell, the only Tom Sawyer reference I could ever quote with any sense of accuracy would be lyrics from the song by Rush.
What’s disconcerting about this week’s vast misquoting of MLK and Twain is how the misinformation spread like unchecked wildfire. People just accepted that these misquotes were fact and then cut/paste them into their Facebooks, blogs, tweets, etc. It shouldn’t have to take a scholar to have to point out when someone has misquoted one of the most influential voices in American history. This somewhat cements my frustration and fear about the immediacy of all things internet; especially when it comes to anything educational/historical/literary. It seems like quality control goes out the window. Anyone can write anything they want, after all, and it’s just *out there*. And it can then take on a life of its own, even if you remove the post. (Even if you’re Chris Brown and you write a crazy tweet-rant after you bust a window at ABC, and then delete the tweet. It lives on! There is no escape.) People head straight to Wikipedia for confirmation on things, since the content is readily available and free, though its content is often times unverified.
So what’s the solution to such freewheeling quotations? I haven’t a clue. It’s my hope that people just take the extra step to maybe check their references before clicking “send” or “post”. Maybe I’m over-thinking this whole thing. But then again, maybe try coming up with your own great quote! Now, there’s a fun challenge.
“Though his mind is not for rent, don’t put him down as arrogant.” (“Tom Sawyer” by RUSH)