Daily Archives: July 22, 2010

Quote? Unquote?

I’m reading and very much enjoying a book by Jane Errington called The Lion, The Eagle and Upper Canada: a developing colonial ideology.  The book was awarded the Corey Prize in 1988, a prize for the best book on Canadian-US relations, jointly sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Canadian Historical Association.  Reviews that I have read about the book at time of publication have not been universally glowing, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless, oblivious as I am at this stage of the nuances of US-Canadian historiography and politics.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that she does not use block quotes but instead snips them up and integrates them into a paragraph. For example:

On 3 June 1814 Rev John Strachan preached a Thanksgiving Service to his congregation in York celebrating the deliverance of Great Britain from the devastating conflict in Europe. “Thankfully and devoutly” he declared, we “acknowledge the mercy and goodness of Almighty God; for protecting His Majesty and His dominions during the whole of this arduous contest; and for the signal and glorious victories obtained by its armies.” “Our joy is full,” he continued, “when we reflect that … Great Britain has been chiefly instrumental, through the blessings of God, in bringing about the happy changes which we now contemplate.” “Truly” she was “the preserver of the independence of Europe” and “the proclamation of peace,” he declared, would triumphantly bring her to “a new era of glory.” And though peace had yet to be won in North America, Strachan called upon Upper Canadians to “rejoice”. We have earned “the happiest time…now rising upon us,” he maintained. (p.97)

This quote is duly footnoted as “Strachan, A Sermon Preached at York on the third day of June, Being the Day Appointed for General Thanksgiving, 1814, 22-3, 38, 34.  It reads smoothly, and it’s only when you look closely that you notice the rather clunky double inverted commas.

Still, I find myself a little uneasy about it.  It reminds me of the technique of “The Week” magazine, to which I subscribe largely because of the generous discount for subscriptions.  As a way of distilling the essence of commentary (and perhaps to avoid copyright issues), the magazine likewise uses snippets of sentences in inverted commas, although sometimes I wonder why they choose such banal words to highlight in this way. For example, it summarizes Rex Jory’s column from “The Advertiser” in this way:

The perfect monopoly has struck again, says Rex Jory. The price of postage stamps “crept up” 5c to 60c last week, and what could we do about it? Nothing.  This is preposterous and outrageous. It’s bad enough that Australia Post can charge “pretty much what it likes” but it also “contemptuously” refuses to provide a weekend service.   etc etc.

Errington’s integration of snippets into a prose summary probably does justice to the sentiments expressed- possibly better than verbatim slabs would have done, but I feel wary- what if she’s misrepresenting what is said?  Although, short of slavishly writing out the whole document, how is any reader to know that paragraphs are not chosen selectively and skewed by ellipses and omissions?

I think, too, of the advice given in Ann McGrath and Ann Curthoy’s recent book How to Write History that People Want to Read that examiners and readers always skip over slab quotes anyway.  Do they? Do I?  I must admit that I think I do sometimes.  I think I’m looking for the analysis rather than the evidence.  Yet the fear of plagiarism or sloppiness prods me into backing myself up when I am writing, even though I don’t always read the evidence when somebody else backs themselves up the same way.  Errington’s technique weaves the analysis and evidence together in a way where it is less easy to skip.  I think I like it, but I’m still not sure.  A little writing challenge to meet, I’m sure.