Why are not more gems from our great authors scattered over the country? Great books are not in everybodys reach; and though it is better to know them thoroughly than to know them only here and there, yet it is a good work to give a little to those who have neither time nor means to get more. Let every book-worm, when in any fragrant scarce old tome he discovers a sentence, a story, an illustration, that does his heart good, hasten to give it.
If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will be cried up as erudition. But in this respect every author is a Spartan, being more ashamed of the discovery than of the depredation. Yet the offence itself may not be so heinous as the manner of committing it; for some, as Voltaire, not only steal, but, like the harpies, befoul and bespatter those whom they have plundered. Others, again, give us the mere carcase of another mans thoughts, but deprived of all their life and spirit, and this is to add murder to robbery. I have somewhere seen it observed that we should make the same use of a book that the bee does of a flower: she steals sweets from it, but does not injure it; and those sweets she herself improves and concocts into honey. But most plagiarists, like the drone, have neither taste to select, nor industry to acquire, nor skill to improve; but impudently pilfer the honey ready prepared from the hive.
Twas this vain idolizing of authors which gave birth to that silly vanity of impertinent citations: these ridiculous fooleries signify nothing to the more generous discerners but the pedantry of the affected sciolists.
The subject of quotation being introduced, Mr. [John] Wilkes censured it as pedantry. JOHNSON. No, Sir, it is a good thing; there is a community of mind in it. Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world. WILKES. Upon the continent they all quote the Vulgate Bible. Shakspeare is chiefly quoted here: and we quote also Pope, Prior, Butler, Waller, and sometimes Cowley.
When I first collected these authorities, I was desirous that every quotation should be useful to some other end than the illustration of a word; I therefore extracted from philosophers principles of science; from historians remarkable facts; from chymists complete processes; from divines striking exhortations; and from poets beautiful descriptions. Such is design while it is yet at a distance from execution. When the time called upon me to range this accumulation of elegance and wisdom into an alphabetical series, I soon discovered that the bulk of my volumes would fright away the student, and was forced to depart from my scheme of including all that was pleasing or useful in English literature, and reduce my transcripts very often to clusters of words in which scarcely any meaning is retained: thus to the weariness of copying I was condemned to add the vexation of expunging. Some passages I have yet spared, which may relieve the labour of verbal searches, and intersperse with verdure and flowers the dusty deserts of barren philology.
The examples, thus mutilated, are no longer to be considered as conveying the sentiments or doctrine of their authors: the word for the sake of which they are inserted, with all its appendant clauses, has been carefully preserved; but it may sometimes happen, by hasty detruncation, that the general tendency of the sentence may be changed: the divine may desert his tenets, or the philosopher his system.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language.
The indiscreet scriblers of our times, who amongst their laborious nothings insert whole sections, paragraphs, and pages, out of ancient authors, with a design by that means to illustrate their own writings, do quite contrary; for this infinite dissimilitude of ornaments renders the complexions of their own compositions so pale, sallow, and deformd, that they lose much more than they get. The philosophers Chrysippus and Epicurus were in this of two quite contrary humours; for the first did not only in his books mix the passages and sayings of other authors, but entire pieces, and in one the whole Medea of Euripides; which gave Apollodorus occasion to say, that should a man pick out of his writings all that was none of his, he would leave him nothing but blank paper; whereas the latter, quite contrary, in three hundred volumes that he left behind him, has not so much as any one quotation.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xxv.
Whoever only reads to transcribe shining remarks, without entering into the genius and spirit of the author, will be apt to be misled out of the regular way of thinking; and all the product of all this will be found a manifest incoherent piece of patchwork.
If these little sparks of holy fire which I have thus heaped up together do not give life to your prepared and already enkindled spirit, yet they will sometimes help to entertain a thought, to actuate a passion, to employ and hallow a fancy.