A Momentary Flow

Updating Worldviews one World at a time

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What is the use of quotations? They have of, course, their practical applications for after-dinner speakers or for editorialists looking to buttress their arguments. They also make marvelous filler for otherwise uninspired conversations. But the gathering of such fragments responds to a much deeper compulsion. It resonates with the timeless desire to seize on the minimal remnant — the tiniest identifiable gesture — out of which the world could, in a pinch, be reconstructed. Libraries may go under, cultures may go under, but single memorizable bits of rhyme and discourse persist over centuries. Shattered wholes reach us in small disconnected pieces, like the lines of the poet Sappho preserved in ancient treatises. To collect those pieces, to extrapolate lost worlds from them, to create a larger map of the human universe by laying many such pieces side by side: this can become a fever, and one that has afflicted writers of all eras.

We Are What We Quote - NYTimes.com