Quotations permeate our life and our work, whether formally used in a research paper or informally tacked to an inspiration board. But making sure that a source actually spoke or penned those exact words can be tough. Sara Bader is making it her mission to compile and verify the quotes of the world via her site Quotenik. In this month’s Shop Talk, Sara talks about her process and the oddly relaxing art of cracking a really tough quote.
First, tell us a little about yourself. What have been some of the driving forces in your life?
My career hasn’t been linear, which is a reflection of how I like to work. I started as a researcher for documentary films, then wrote a book on the history of classified advertising, which led me to the publishing industry, and to editing. The unifying thread—whether I’m working on my own book or editing someone else’s—has been the desire to learn about subjects that take me all over the map and to discover unexpected connections as I go.
In terms of driving forces, I think I would have to cite endless curiosity and persistence, but a quote by Nick Hornby might best explain how I see myself and my work: “I would like my personal reading map to resemble a map of the British Empire circa 1900; I’d like people to look at it and think, How the hell did he end up right over there?” One of the reasons I enjoy researching is because it gives me the chance to wander, with the goal of finding something specific. I’ll often end up down roads I never knew existed, which is always the exciting part for me.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction, especially journals and letter collections. Sometimes the writer will recommend a book in a letter to a friend or will mention a title offhandedly in a journal entry, and then I’ll go off and read that book, which I probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I love the idea that some deceased writer just recommended my next book!
Was there a moment that pushed you to create Quotenik? Any particular quote that made you say, “That’s it!”
The decision to create Quotenik came about when I was working with Joan Konner, former dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I’ve had the good fortune to research three of her quotation collections, and as I fact checked hundreds of quotes for these volumes, I kept running into poorly sourced (or unsourced) websites. I also came across the same quotes, again and again. Quotenik is the website I had been hoping to find for years in my research travels: an online library that not only provides verified quotes, accurate attributions, and complete source information, but fresh content discovered off the beaten path—in letters, journals, and diaries, etc.—beautiful, useful thoughts worthy of sharing but underexposed.
Can you talk a little about how you research a quote? What does it take to pinpoint a source, and what does it take to get the “fact checked” stamp?
Google Books is always my first stop. I can’t imagine researching without it. If a quote is missing source information, I’ll toss the sentence(s) into Google Books to see what the net pulls in. Often the title is right there, the publication is searchable, and I can immediately verify the quotation. Occasionally there are discrepancies to reconcile (words added or missing, different punctuation, etc.).
But that’s the best-case scenario. Sometimes Google Books offers up the original source but the publication isn’t searchable or only a “snippet view” is available, making it difficult to verify the wording. In that case, I usually move over to Amazon to see if the page is viewable there; if not, I’ll check out the book from the library and verify it the analog way.
When Google Books doesn’t yield any clues, and the wider Internet doesn’t offer helpful leads either, I try to turn over every stone, sometimes e-mailing biographers, special collection archivists, academic experts, etc., for assistance. It’s methodical detective work, which I find hugely rewarding and oddly relaxing. In some ways, the more stubborn the quote is to source, the more I enjoy the process: it encourages me to think of creative ways to uncover the information or to determine that the quote has been misattributed.
The easiest approach, of course, is to discover the quote myself as I’m reading, so there’s no need to pursue source information or to verify wording. When I finish reading a book, it’s often covered with sticky notes (as in the photo on the left), marking the quotations I plan to upload to Quotenik.
Do you have any tips for editors and writers who need to spot iffy quotes?
I treat every quote as iffy until I find it in the original source. Or, if the original source isn’t accessible, I verify it directly with the speaker or writer. Quotes remind me a bit of that old game Telephone, where everyone sits in a circle and the same message is whispered from one person to the next, inevitably accumulating spontaneous edits in the retelling. From the first person who quotes a line, there might be a new word inserted or an awkward phrase worked over, and once it’s out there, people then re-quote the altered version and add, often inadvertently, their own (minor) adjustments. Louis Menand wrote this great line in the New Yorker: “Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation.” I assume that most quotes I find have been rubbed smooth by circulation, so I search for them in their original settings, where they were first minted, whether hundreds of years ago or just last week. I’m often surprised by what I find.
Is there a famous person or historical figure you’ve found to be particularly prone to being misquoted or misattributed?
I’m not sure which quote gets misattributed most often—there are so many out there—but Mark Twain seems to be the go-to guy when people aren’t sure who wrote the line and it sounds like something he might have come up with at some point. I joined a Twain academic listserv for this reason, to enlist the opinions of Twain scholars, and www.twainquotes.com is a reliable resource, created by a researcher and consultant who has categorized/confirmed his quotations.
Quotenik includes quotes from both famous and everyday people. As the site says, “if it’s a line worth remembering, I’ll add it to the library.” Why did you decide to include this range of speakers and writers?
Although a quote by a recognizable name carries more weight because of who wrote or said it, it seems like a lost opportunity to limit the library to the words of famous figures. One of my favorite quotes in the money category comes from an antiques dealer, who owns a local shop: “A fast buck is better than a slow ten.” His father told him that, and it’s his business motto.
It sounds like you’re interested in using people’s words as a unique way of seeing our world—whether through quotes or through classifieds, as you did in your book Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past. What draws you to these pieces of history? Why are they important?
I’m drawn to the distilled format that classifieds and quotations share. In the case of historic classifieds, a handful of words begging the public for information about a lost relative paints an instant portrait of a nineteenth-century immigrant’s first difficult days in America, while an eighteenth-century posting for a lost anvil sums up, in just a few short lines, what the loss of such a costly tool meant to a working blacksmith. Each classified is a porthole onto another person’s life, offering glimpses of vast, complex worlds we might otherwise never imagine.
Quotations are equally powerful, even medicinal at times. When the right words are encountered at the right moment, they can impact our thinking, shift our mindset, and literally influence the choices we make. This astounds me. These condensed, succinct lines of text—whether it’s a historic classified or a particularly astute quotation—are uniquely capable of widening our perspective—on questions as broad as the history of our country or as intimate as the patterns of our own lives.
Are there any Sara Bader quotes on the site? If not, what would you add?
I haven’t added any of my own quotes to the site. I’ll happily defer to Montaigne here and say, “I quote others only in order the better to express myself.”
Sara Bader is a senior acquisitions editor at Princeton Architectural Press. She is the founder and editor of Quotenik, a growing library of verified quotations, and the author of Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads from the Past (Clarkson Potter, 2005). More recently she compiled and edited The Designer Says, a compilation of quotations on graphic design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013). She is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Guide to Recovery with Neil Steinberg, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the spring of 2016.