Shortly after beloved children’s author Eric Carle died in May, the initial outpouring of tributes online, a passage from an interview with him went viral. In the quotation, Carle explains how the titular protagonist of his most famous book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, was done an injustice by his publisher. Apparently, the author had “fought bitterly” over the stomachache scene in the story, in which — having gorged himself on salami, cake, pie etc. — the caterpillar feels unwell. The publisher had insisted on this moment of nauseous regret.
“It ran entirely contrary to the message of the book. The caterpillar is, after all, very hungry, as sometimes we all are,” said Carle.
Except he didn’t.
This “interview” turned out to be a literary April Fools’ joke put out by the Paris Review in 2015. Before this was pointed out by online fact checkers, Carle briefly became an ally against fatphobia and the propaganda of the weight-loss industry. Through misinformation, we molded Carle into a hero of body positivity. Not everyone will get the memo that this quote was a satirical fabrication, however; to some, Carle will always be these things.
Such viral misquotation predates the internet. For centuries, people have claimed that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” which she didn’t. But it’s online culture, particularly the prevalence of websites dedicated entirely to inspirational quotes (BrainyQuote, A-Z Quotes, QuoteFancy) that means everyone’s aunt Linda can log onto Facebook and misquote Gandhi to everyone she knows, at once. Many of these quotation websites — each filled with thousands of downloadable “quotes” (genuine or otherwise), often set against an image of something generically inspiring, like a sunset or a mountaintop — rake in money.
So, while the reason for the existence of these websites is clear, what remains a mystery to me is how my mum, Sue Margolis, ended up on several of them, with something she almost certainly never said. My mum, who died in 2017, was no Eric Carle, Marie Antoinette, or Gandhi. She was never a household name. She was, however, at one point a bestselling author in the U.S. Her books (often described as “chick lit”) are lighthearted and full of Jewish humor. They are far from pseudo-philosophical or pretentious. And yet, the enigmatic, faux-profound quotation attributed to my mum is: “Enjoying life isn’t about finding the answers, but living the questions.”
To put it bluntly, my mum hated this sort of bullshit. She was straight talking, and refused to take herself seriously. As soon as I came across the quotation (while googling her out of curiosity about a few months after her death) it struck me as something she’d probably roll her eyes at. Still, I became obsessed with finding out whether she’d actually said it.
Luckily, my dad has her entire oeuvre stored on his computer. Every one of her newspaper columns, and all 14 of her novels (dating back to 1998) are right there as searchable Word documents. I trawled her writing for the quote and found nothing. No one in my family is aware of my mum ever having done any TV or radio interviews. And, even if she did, it’s hard to overstate just how much, “Enjoying life isn’t about finding the answers, but living the questions,” is not something she would’ve said, off the cuff. The strong likelihood is that she never said it.
So where, exactly, do these quotation sites get their content? Via email, I spoke to a Toronto-based man named Shawn, who runs a site called motivational.net. Shawn, who works a nine-to-five job, said the site started off as more of a hobby than a money-making exercise. In the ’90s, he self-published a book of quotations, and soon after became interested in search engine optimization. He launched his website in 1998, and got the quotations directly from books. “That went well here and there for a few years,” he said, “meaning sometimes I made a little extra money from ads, but it was mostly a passion project.” Shawn’s interest in quotes is genuine (he even pointed out that the correct term is “quotations” but you “kind of have to speak the language of the day”). This, he feels, makes him rather unusual in the current age of the internet, where some of the big sites like BrainyQuote and A-Z Quotes are “likely making millions per year in just ads.” At its most busy a few years ago, Shawn’s site was pulling in nearly $2,000 per month. He told me that with enough advertising, similar sites “under about 100k to 80k in world ranking” can expect to make this much.
I asked Shawn if there’s a quotes website “community” of sorts, for people who run sites like his. He told me that, back in the early 2000s, it was more common for different sites to link to one another, so he got to know a few others in the quotes game that way. But this was also when he was adding more and more original quotations — ones he claimed had never made it online before — to his website. “The other quote sites back then copied and re-copied each other so you would always see the same old stuff,” he said. Then, in 2014, he tried an experiment. Shawn added a plugin to his site, which would add a link to any content copied and pasted directly from it. This link could be removed, but — if left in mistakenly or otherwise — Shawn’s site would be credited. The plugin also tracked these copied and pasted quotes, so that Shawn could look at the stats on them. Within months, over five thousand other sites had copied and pasted content from his.
“This gives me a small idea of what people are up against when someone is quoted,” he said. “I assume that your mother got misquoted in a popular source and it just spread like wildfire.”
The world of online quotations is clearly chaotic, and somewhere within this chaos, an odd, out-of-character quote was attributed to my mum. In desperately searching for its origin, I came across a few similar quotations. In a letter to a friend in 1903, the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.” This could certainly be construed as a less pithy version of my mum’s supposed quote. Then there’s this quote attributed to Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho: “Life is too short to be wasted in finding answers. Enjoy the questions.” I have no memory of my mum ever showing an interest in Rilke or Coelho.
Since discovering it, my mum’s “quote” has become tattooed onto my brain. I obsess over it in the same way I would over an incomplete map she’d handed me on her deathbed, muttering some last words about “treasure.” I can even imagine the exact look on her face if I asked her about the quote. I can see the two deep vertical lines that appeared on her forehead when she was thrown by something. I can see her jerking her head back, slightly. Having a burning question for a dead mum is a sort of existential version of suppressing a sneeze.
I emailed eight different websites — all of the ones with contact information listed on them — that contain my mum’s quotes. I wasn’t even sure how they could help me. The exercise seemed about as useful as asking someone where the meme they posted had originated — who its original author was. Either way, not a single one replied. They’re based all over the world, with several in Asia: India, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Perhaps, with some, there was a language barrier.
Frank Harrold, who owns PrimoQuotes, told me that on his website people create profiles and post their own content. Although, “A lot of other sites scrape content from other quote sites and then post it as their own.” Harrold, based in Wales, offered to remove my mum’s quote from his site, if it was there. It wasn’t though, and even if it was, I’m not sure I’d see the point. The quote isn’t exactly offensive (it’s kind of the opposite of offensive) and removing it from one website out of the many that have posted it — some onto backgrounds with the same photo of my mum smiling — seems a little pointless.
Dr. Lydia Craig, a Victorianist at Loyola University Chicago, might feel differently about this. She’s studied the phenomenon of online misquotation, particularly in the case of motivational quote stalwart Charles Dickens. Speaking to me via Zoom, Craig pointed to the lack of regulation when it comes to these quotes. There are even sites with templates — a rectangular background and a picture of your chosen author looking thoughtful — where anyone can create an “inspirational quote.” Often people will do this purely to riff on the fact these quotes are so often misattributed, writing something deliberately absurd and framing it as a Gandhi quote.
“What we’re actually seeing, especially on sites like Goodreads, which I would think would be more scholastic… you’ll find that misattributed quotes are just rife,” said Craig.
Craig gave an example of a particular “Dickens” quote: “There’s no greater gift than the love of a cat.” These words have inspired their own range of merchandise — they’re available on T-shirts, tote bags, and cushions. They’re not always attributed to Dickens, but often are. Yet, according to Craig, Dickens simply never wrote this. In fact, she’s traced the quote back to a self-help book from the ’90s.
When it comes to erroneous quotes from 19th-century literature, Craig said Hollywood adaptations of novels are partially to blame. For instance, the line “What excellent boiled potatoes.” This supposed snippet from Pride and Prejudice is regularly attributed to Jane Austen. While, yes, it is part of the dialogue in the 2005 adaptation of the novel starring Keira Knightley, it’s nowhere to be seen in Austen’s text.
“I think the problem is a lot of these clips are very close to what we expect these authors to say,” Craig said. “It’s sentimental, and it strikes a chord with us.”
I asked Craig if, perhaps, all these misattributed quotes and their accompanying merchandise have created a deceptively twee image of some authors.
“It’s part of the tourist industry,” she said, “and I think Dickens was one of the first authors to establish that kind of a following.”
In terms of why sharing quotes (false or otherwise) is so popular, Craig points to the beginning of her own education, when she read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. “I was so excited when I read something that resonated with me,” she said, “especially if it was a book I thought was very important.” Craig explained that merely understanding this old novel — which was way above her reading level — made her feel a special connection to the past. So when pithy, stand-alone quotes attributed to anyone from Plato to Mark Twain strike a chord with people, there’s a sense of pride in understanding something so grandiose and archaic. A kind of pride you might celebrate by, say, posting the quote on social media.
Craig estimated that, with Dickens and Austen in particular, about 25 percent of their online quotes are incorrect in some way. This could be anything from the wrong wording to the quote being made up entirely. In the case of the latter, Craig said that makes up about 10 percent. Quoting out of context is also a problem. For example, a beloved quote from David Copperfield is, “A loving heart is the truest wisdom.” However, this is actually a line that’s delivered rather condescendingly from Mr. Copperfield to Mrs. Copperfield, when she feels she can’t get any of the housework right.
In the age of online disinformation, misattributed quotations hardly measure up to the damage caused by the likes of anti-vaxxers or QAnon. But it’s all on a spectrum. In a hurricane of information, we grab at pieces of debris, and shape them around our own chosen reality. Republicans have selected words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and tried to mold him into a conservative icon. Religious people have taken Einstein’s references to “God” and painted him as a believer, rather than the skeptic he was.
I’m not sure who it serves to attribute that odd quote to my mum. The likelihood is that I’ll never know where it came from, or whether she actually said it. But, as somebody out there once said, “Enjoying life isn’t about finding the answers, but living the questions.”
Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.