This Is Not a Novel To Be Tossed Aside Lightly. It Should Be Thrown with Great Force

Dorothy Parker? Sid Ziff? Bennett Cerf? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

parkerbook02Dear Quote Investigator: The most scathingly hilarious quip about a novel is credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker who reportedly included it in a book review:

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Unfortunately, no one seems to know when this line was written or spoken. Also, I have not been able to determine the name of the book that was being slammed. Could you explore this?

Quote Investigator: Multiple researchers have attempted to locate this joke in the writings of Dorothy Parker and have been unsuccessful. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest in February 1960. The phrasing was slightly different, and the words were not ascribed to Parker: 1

From a book review: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.”
—Sid Ziff in Los Angeles Mirror-News

Based on current information QI believes that Sid Ziff was the most likely creator of this humorous expression. Yet, the joke was reassigned to Dorothy Parker within a few years by Bennett Cerf who specialized in collecting and popularizing quotations. Cerf included the saying in his widely-syndicated newspaper column in October 1962: 2

FROM A BOOK REVIEW BY DOROTHY PARKER: “This is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Book reviewers do use expressions such as “lightly tossed aside” and “lightly thrown aside”. Here is an example in 1870 that was not intended to be humorous: 3

We have examined Mommsen’s History with the greatest interest. It is not a book to be lightly read and lightly thrown aside, like a novel, yet it is as entertaining as fiction.

Ziff’s joke exaggerates and modifies the phrase “lightly thrown aside” to generate a comical effect.

In 1894 a joke was published that exploited the ambiguity of the phrase “laid it aside with great pleasure”: 4 5

McScribber—How did you like my last book of poems?
Miss Birdie McGinnis—I laid it aside with great pleasure.—Texas Siftings.

By 1905 a jest about throwing books was in circulation under the title “The Book Agent”. Apologies to friends of animals: 6

Agent—Here is a book you can’t afford to be without.
Victim—I never read books.
Agent—Buy it for your children.
Victim—I have no family—only a cat.
Agent—Well, don’t you need a good heavy book to throw at the cat, sometimes?

In February 1922 the anecdote above was reformulated and presented as non-fiction by a letter writer whose tale was printed in a newspaper in Cincinnati, Ohio. This story concerned the great-grandfather of the writer, and the potential target was a dog instead of a cat: 7

Far back in the fifties he was selling on one occasion “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” by Gibbon.
“Here is a book you can’t afford to be without,” he said, calling on a man in Hyde Park.
“I never read,” answered the victim.
“Well buy it for your children,” urged my great-grandfather.
“I’m single—I have no family. All I have is a dog.”
“Well,” insisted my great-grandfather, “don’t you want a nice heavy book to throw at the dog now and then?”

In June 1927 Dorothy Parker published a poem titled “To A Lady, Who Must Write Verse” in The New Yorker magazine. The poem suggested that dabblers in poetry should keep their works private. The phrase “thrown aside” was used, but the poem did not include the joke under investigation: 8

Let your rhymes be tinsel treasures,
Strung and seen and thrown aside.

In October 1927 Parker printed a book review column in The New Yorker that included a quip about throwing a set of books. This jest was distinct from the one being explored in this article, but the conceptual similarity may have caused some confusion: 9

That gifted entertainer, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, author of “The Autobiography of Margot Asquith” (four volumes, neatly boxed, suitable for throwing purposes), reverts to tripe in a new book deftly entitled “Lay Sermons.”

Remarks about throwing books at animals continued to circulate. Here is an example in a New Hampshire newspaper in 1946: 10

The best book to throw at a cat — “Smithsonian Physical Tables,” be sure you get the eighth revised edition.

In February 1960 a close match for the jest was printed in the Reader’s Digest as noted previously in this article: 11

From a book review: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.”
—Sid Ziff in Los Angeles Mirror-News

In April 1960 a newspaper in Oakland, California printed the joke. The text exactly matched the version published in the Reader’s Digest a few months earlier, but Ziff’s name was deleted: 12

IN BRIEF
From a book review: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.”— Los Angeles Mirror-News.

In 1962 the publisher and quotation maven Bennett Cerf printed a version of the quip, and he ascribed the words to Dorothy Parker, but he did not provide a citation: 13

FROM A BOOK REVIEW BY DOROTHY PARKER: “This is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

In 1967 the writer Larry Wolters included a version of the jest in his “Gag Bag” newspaper column. This version used the word “tossed” instead of “thrown” and was credited to Parker: 14

From a review by Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be lightly tossed aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

In 1968 the author Robert E. Drennan printed a version of the joke in his book “The Algonquin Wits” which collected humorous remarks attributed to members of the Algonquin Round Table. The statement appeared in the chapter covering Dorothy Parker, and the phrasing using “tossed” given by Drennan is common today: 15

Book review: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

In 1975 the columnist Earl Wilson connected the expression to famed comedian Groucho Marx: 16

Wish I’d Said That: Groucho Marx mentioned a new novel at the Beverly Hills Saloon. “It’s not a book to be tossed lightly aside — it should be thrown with great force.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence QI would credit Sid Ziff with crafting this joke. QI has not yet gained access to the archives of the Los Angeles Mirror-News. The exact location of the relevant review by Ziff is not known to QI. Hence, the book under review is not known.

Dorothy Parker died in 1967 so the joke was being disseminated while she was alive, and she may have used it herself, but QI has located no substantive support that she coined it.

Two books have been mentioned as possible targets of the barb. The Cardinal’s Mistress is the English title of a book by Benito Mussolini which was reviewed by Parker in the New Yorker in 1928. But the review did not contain the jibe. 17 Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand has also been named as the object of excoriation, but QI has located no substantiation for this claim.

(Special thanks to Sam Clements and Bonnie Taylor-Blake who explored this saying and found the important citation in the Oakland Tribune on April 4, 1960 along with the citation to Cerf’s column. Thanks also to the participants in discussions about this quotation at the Snopes website and the Straight Dope website which took place in years past.)

Notes:

  1. 1960 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 76, On the Critical Side, Quote Page 180,  The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1962 October 10, Lewiston Evening Journal, Try And Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 15, Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. (Google News Archive)
  3. 1870 August, The American Educational Monthly, Current Publications, Start Page 358, Quote Page 359, J. W. Schermerhorn & Co., New York. (ProQuest American Periodical Series)
  4. 1894 May 5, Rocky Mountain News, Quips of the Day, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1894 May 6, The Sunday Spy (Worcester Daily Spy), Section: Part II, Newspaper Waifs, Quote Page 11, Column 3,Worcester, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1905 July 29, Cleveland Leader, Just By the Way, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1922 February 18, Cincinnati Post, Village Gossip: Letter from Cumminsville Correspondent, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1927 June 18, The New Yorker, Poem: To A Lady, Who Must Write Verse by Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 22, F-R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker Archive)
  9. 1927 October 22, The New Yorker, Recent Books by Constant Reader (identifying name used by Dorothy Parker), Start Page 98, Quote Page 98, F-R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  10. 1946 December 27, Nashua Telegraph, Hal Boyle: Roving Reporter, (Associated Press), Quote Page 8, Column 6, Nashua, New Hampshire. (NewspaperArchive)
  11. 1960 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 76, On the Critical Side, Quote Page 180,  The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  12. 1960 April 4, Oakland Tribune, (Freestanding short item with title “IN BRIEF”), Quote Page 16, Column 7, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  13. 1962 October 10, Lewiston Evening Journal, Try And Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 15, Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. (Google News Archive)
  14. 1967 April 23, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Larry Wolters’ Gag Bag, Quote Page 40, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, (Freestanding short note), Quote Page 116, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1975 November 17, Press-Telegram, Karen’s special’d be ‘ordinary’ by Earl Wilson, Quote Page A11, Column 5, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  17. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Dorothy Parker, Page 352, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)