Category Archives: Washington Irving

Even a Stopped Clock Is Right Twice a Day

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach? Lewis Carroll? Charles L. Dodgson? Joseph Addison? Richard Steele? Diedrich Knickerbocker? Washington Irving? Albany de Grenier Fonblanque? Paulo Coelho? Anonymous?

clockface07Dear Quote Investigator: An obtuse, unreliable, or incompetent person occasionally performs properly. Here are three versions of a proverb reflecting this observation:

  1. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  2. A broken watch is certain to be right twice a day.
  3. A clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours.

This saying has been attributed to the prominent Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and to the famous children’s author Lewis Carroll, a.k.a., Charles L. Dodgson the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. Even in the 1700s dress fashions were ever changing. If one maintained a single clothing style it would become passé, but eventually it would return to “the mode”, i.e., become fashionable again. “The Spectator” employed the clock-based simile when discussing this topic. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Did they keep to one constant dress, they would sometimes be in the fashion, which they never are as matters are managed at present. If instead of running after the mode, they would continue fixed in one certain habit, the mode would some time or other overtake them, as a clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours: in this case therefore I would advise them, as a Gentleman did his friend who was hunting about the whole town after a rambling fellow, If you follow him you will never find him, but if you plant your self at the corner of any one street, I’ll engage it will not be long before you see him.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated “The Spectator”. Both were significant literary and political figures. Scholarly reprints in later years identified Joseph Addison as the author of the excerpt above. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 3 of 4, The Spectator, Number 129, Issue Year: 1711, Issue Date: “Saturday, July 28”, Start Page 83, Quote Page 83, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1886, Addison: Selections from Addison’s Papers Contributed to the Spectator, Main Author: Joseph Addison, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Thomas Arnold, No. 129: The same subject; letter describing the fashions in the West of England, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Oxford, Clarendon Press. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

When I Want to Read a Book, I Write One

Benjamin Disraeli? Washington Irving?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I was reading the top-selling book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” and encountered this sentence [BSN]:

Nero did not read novels—”Novels are fun to write, not read,” he claimed.

I was certain that I had read something similar before. After thinking a few minutes I recalled the following quotation:

When I want to read a novel, I write one.

This does differ from the words in the Black Swan, but the association in my mind was strong. When I searched for this phrase online I found the saying attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, but I have not seen any solid citations. Could you investigate this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest version of this humorous and imperious statement that QI has located uses the word “book” instead of “novel” and is indeed attributed to Benjamin Disraeli in 1868 [BDFM]:

When I want to read a book, I write one.

Another entertaining and more modest viewpoint concerning reading and writing books is expressed by the prominent American author Washington Irving in 1824. At the beginning of “Tales of a Traveller” Irving writes a section “To the Reader” using his Geoffrey Crayon persona [WIGC]:

I tried to read, but my mind would not fix itself; I turned over volume after volume, but threw them by with distaste: “Well, then,” said I at length in despair, “if I cannot read a book, I will write one.” Never was there a more lucky idea; it at once gave me occupation and amusement.

Of course, this is a distinct motto; QI includes it as an engaging counterpoint. Here are some additional selected citations in chronological order.

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