The Man Who Does Not Read Has No Advantage Over the Man Who Cannot Read

Mark Twain? Inland Steel Company? Quin Ryan? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

twainread01Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain is credited with a marvelous saying about the importance of reading:

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

I was unable to determine when this saying was created, but I did find another version while searching:

The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

Now, I am suspicious that this adage may not be from Twain. Could you take a look?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this maxim. Quotation expert Ralph Keyes and Twain specialist Barbara Schmidt both indicate that the connection to Twain is unsupported. 1 2

The earliest conceptual match for the expression located by QI was printed in “The Southern Workman” in 1910. The words of the state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia were recorded as he advocated support for libraries that would provide quality books for children. The superintendent used rhetorical questions that equated individuals who cannot read with those who do not read: 3

Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?

The earliest close match found by QI was published in October 1914 in an item reprinted from the periodical “The Dodge Idea”. Oddly, the context was advertising. An exponent of delivering advertisements through the mail was unhappy that these messages were often thrown away unread. The adage was used twice in the article: once in the header and once in the body, but the statement was not attributed: 4

A Man Who Does Not Read Has No Appreciable Advantage Over the Man Who Cannot Read

The man who doesn’t read hasn’t any advantage over the man who can’t read; yet there are many men who consider that the waste basket is the only place for second-class mail. The circular matter that goes through the mails is not intended to be a filler for waste baskets, but its purpose is to suggest a solution of certain problems.

The first ascription to Mark Twain found by QI was published in 1945. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1914 the saying was printed in the newspaper column of Dr. W. A. Evans, Professor of Hygiene at Northwestern University. Evans presented a series of “safety first” slogans that were taken from bulletin number 10 of “The Inland Steel Company”, and three of the slogans are shown below. This instance of the maxim spoke of reading “good books”. 5 6

“Progress is the shortest way between two points. Safety points the way and guides from danger.”

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

“Uneasy lies the head of the man who takes chances. He is always in danger”

The adage was printed in other periodicals such as “100% The Practical Magazine of Efficient Management” in March 1915. The wording was the same as that used in the column of Dr. Evans except the phrase “does not” was contracted to “doesn’t”. 7

In May 1915 the same maxim was printed in the “Bulletin” of the National Association of Corporation Schools. 8 In July 1915 the “Bulletin” published a modified version of the saying directed at boys: 9

The reason most people do not accomplish more is that they do not attempt more. The boy who does not read good books, who does not embrace every opportunity to extend his general knowledge, has no advantage over the boy who cannot read books and who does not have opportunity to extend his knowledge.

In 1931 a California newspaper printed the following variant under the header “Old Man Flickers Says”: 10

Folks who can and don’t read good books have no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

In 1932 an Arkansas newspaper presented this next version without attribution: 11

The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the fellow who can’t read a line.

In 1945 the saying was ascribed to the famous humorist Mark Twain in a publication about the nursing field. This is the first connection to Twain that QI has located: 12

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.—Mark Twain, 1895 A.D.

In 1948 the same version of the adage was credited to Mark Twain in the “Thoughts On the Business of Life” section of Forbes magazine. 13

In 1951 the Chicago Tribune offered another variant of the expression without attribution: 14

Your thought for the week: The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who never learned to read.

The confusion over the origin of the saying has been manifest for many decades. In 1958 the New York Times printed this request in its “Queries and Answers” section: 15

M. L. F. writes: “Can someone tell me the source of the following quotation: ‘The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.’ I have heard it attributed to Mark Twain but have not been able to verify this.”

In 1964 the column “A Line O’ Type Or Two” in the Chicago Tribune presented the following attribution for the aphorism: 16

The man who does not read good books has no real advantage over the man who can’t read them.      Quin Ryan

In 1966 the popular advice columnist with the pen name Abigail Van Buren received a letter from an ambitious 12-year-old who wanted guidance about becoming smart. The “Dear Abby” scribe employed the adage in her response. Unsurprisingly, the words were credited to her in later years as noted in the “Quote Verifier” reference: 17 18

I would say read! Read, read, read. In books there is a world of information just waiting to be discovered. The person who does not read has no advantage over the person who cannot read.

In 2001 a biography of Mark Twain was published to accompany a documentary series by Ken Burns. The maxim was listed in a section called “What Twain Didn’t Say”. 19

In 2012 the prize-winning journalist Carl M. Cannon examined a set of quotations that had been ascribed to Mark Twain in a slideshow on the Huffington Post website. He presented evidence that revealed the linkage to Twain of several of the sayings was dubious. The Huffington Post was admirably responsive and revised the slideshow by removing the disputed sayings. For example, the adage explored in this article was removed from the slideshow. 20 21

In conclusion, this cogent saying was in circulation by 1914, but initially it was not attributed to a specific individual. Mark Twain died in 1910, and he was implausibly credited with the adage in 1945. The expression was published in a “Dear Abby” column long after its creation.

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 16, 116 and 274, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. TwainQuotes.com website edited by Barbara Schmidt, Comment at bottom of webpage titled “Reading”. (Accessed December 11, 2012) link
  3. 1910 July, The Southern Workman, Volume 39, Number 7, [Comment by Joseph D. Eggleston, Jr. state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia], Start Page 383, Quote Page 384, The Press of The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Hampton, Virginia. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1914 October, Mill Supplies, Volume 4, Number 10, The Waste Basket Waster, [Acknowledgement to “The Dodge Idea”], Quote Page 24, Column 2, Crawford Publishing Group, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1914 December 31, The State, “How to Keep Well” by Dr. W. A. Evans, Page 4, Column 7, Columbia, South Carolina. (Genealogybank)
  6. 1914 December 31, Aberdeen Daily American, “How to Keep Well” by Dr. W. A. Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 5 and 6, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  7. March 1915, 100% The Practical Magazine of Efficient Management, [Freestanding quotation], Page 96, H.P. Gould Company, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust) link
  8. 1915 May, Bulletin, Volume 2, Number 5, [Freestanding quotation], Page 31, Published by Order of the Executive Committee of The National Association of Corporation Schools, New York. (Google Books full view)
  9. 1915 July, Bulletin, Volume 2, Number 7, Realizing the Importance , Page 5, Published by Order of the Executive Committee of The National Association of Corporation Schools, New York. (Google Books full view)
  10. 1931 December 18, Riverside Daily Press, “Old Man Flickers Says” by A. F. Clarke, Market News Section, Page 6, Column 1, [GNB Page 20],  Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1932 November 17, The Journal-Advance, [Freestanding quotation], Quote Page 4, Column 5, Gentry, Arkansas. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1945 October, Nursing World [The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review], Volume 115, [Freestanding quotation], Quote Page 228, Lakeside Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper; Special thanks to the librarians of R. A. Williams Library of Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, Orlando [renamed Adventist University of Health Sciences])
  13. 1948 October 1, Forbes, Thoughts On the Business of Life, Page 42, Column 3, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  14. 1951 February 25, Chicago Tribune, Magazine of Books: Books Alive by Vincent Starrett, Quote Page I9, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  15. 1958 October 19, New York Times, Queries and Answers, Page BR71, New York. (ProQuest)
  16. 1964 March 9, Chicago Tribune, A Line O’ Type Or Two: Quinryan Quip, Page 12, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  17. 1966 October 19, Owosso Argus-Press, Dear Abby: Unbelievable by Abigail Van Buren, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Owosso, Michigan. (Google News Archive)
  18. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 16, 116 and 274, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  19. 2001, Mark Twain by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, Based on a Documentary by Ken Burns, What Twain Didn’t Say, Page 189, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper) link
  20. 2012 December 10, RealClearPolitics website, Putting Words in Mark Twain’s Mouth by Carl M. Cannon, RealClearPolitics Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois.  (Accessed realclearpolitics.com on December 11, 2012) link
  21. 2012 November 30, Huffington Post website, Mark Twain Quotes To Celebrate His Birthday, [Article was updated December 10, 2012], President & Editor-in-Chief: Arianna Huffington. (Accessed huffingtonpost.com on December 11, 2012) link