Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

The Delightful Absurdity of Wikipedia

I was browsing my RSS feed today, and came across this open letter to Wikipedians by author, Philip Roth, published in The New Yorker, about the Wikipedia entry for his book, The Human Stain.

Here was the controversy, in brief:

  1. The Wikipedia page suggested that the book was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”
  2. Roth noted that this was incorrect. He would know…
  3. … except that, according to Wikipedia’s No Original Research policy, it’s not clear that he would. One could argue that the administrators who interacted with Roth interpreted the policy too narrowly, or that the policy itself is too narrow. Regardless, as ridiculous as it may seem, a secondary source that supports Roth’s claim is a more “definitive” source.
  4. And so, Roth created that secondary source by publishing his letter in The New Yorker.

Problem solved. Here’s what the Wikipedia article says now (and this may change by the time you read this):

Roth wrote in 2012 that the book was inspired “by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.”[4]

The footnote cites the letter in The New Yorker. The Wikipedia article also notes:

Roth was motivated to explain the inspiration for the book after noticing an error in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His efforts to correct the entry were thwarted by Wikipedia editors because he did not have a secondary source for his correction. Roth was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic.[5][6][7] Roth has repeatedly said these speculations are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard’s ancestry until “months and months after” starting to write the novel.[8]

Was it absurd that Roth had to go through such lengths to correct this mistake in Wikipedia? Perhaps. I definitely empathize with Roth and many others like him who have to undergo similarly frustrating ordeals, and I truly hope a better approach for handling these things evolves one day.

That said, I think the end result was delightful. Possibly delightfully absurd, but definitely delightful.