Can We Believe Anything We Read?

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In a piece for the Huffington Post titled “Why Does Goodreads Tout Fake Quotes?” Lev Raphael takes aim at the most popular George Eliot quotation on the site:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

According to Mr. Raphael, and apparently verified (or not, as seems to be the fact in this case) by more rigorously fact-checking people/sites, George Eliot never said or wrote this statement. Per the article:

“I poked around the Internet, and though it’s inescapable, there’s no attribution whatsoever. Nobody who knew her records it as a comment she made; it’s not something she wrote in her diary; and it doesn’t appear anywhere in her published work or letters.”

Now, I’m not personally blaming Goodreads – the site must have more than a million quotes listed on its site, if even a cursory glance is anything to go on – but in an age of “alternative facts,” it certainly does raise an interesting question: If educators have been scouring Wikipedia since the site’s launch in 2001 to check for glaring cases of plagiarism on the part of students, do we as readers/Internet users need to be equally as vigilant when referring to well-established (and generally trustworthy) books/websites?

I suppose the easy answer is yes. Of course you should. But that’s when things get murky and discombobulated and confusing and weirdly weird. If Penguin Classics publishes Aristotle’s Poetics, am I supposed to email the director of the non-existent Museum of Aristotle in Athens and have him or her confirm the authenticity of said statements?

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It’s all Greek to me?

That might prove futile, because as our good friends at Wikipedia point out:

The extant works of Aristotle are broken down according to the five categories in the Corpus Aristotelicum. Not all of these works are considered genuine, but differ with respect to their connection to Aristotle, his associates and his views. Some are regarded by most scholars as products of Aristotle’s “school” and compiled under his direction or supervision.

Hmm. Now we’re really in a jar of pickled pickle brine. Really, if we can’t trust Penguin to be quoting Aristotle, who on earth is safe to be quoting? Perhaps the answer is not as easy as we once thought, and at the very least we can thank Kellyanne Conway for one thing: putting this debate square in the cross hairs of public debate.


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One response to “Can We Believe Anything We Read?

  1. Pingback: You’re Not Too Old to Publish (or Start a New Career) | Richard H. Harris

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