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.
A review of Washington Irving’s work in the London Literary Gazette in 1824 highlights the comment about reading and writing books [LLG]:
The Introduction is playful and amusing. Confined by sickness at Mentz, unsusceptible of any enjoyment, and even incapable of reading, Geoffrey Crayon at length exclaims in despair–
“Well, if I cannot read a book, I will write one.”
As noted above an attribution of the target quotation to Benjamin Disraeli appears in Fraser’s Magazine in May of 1868 and below is an extended excerpt [BDFM]. The Latin phrase “Consule Planco” means “when Plancus was consul (i.e., in my younger days; in the good old days) (Horace)” [BRC].
On being asked by an acquaintance many years back—Consule Planco—whether he had read a particular book, he replied, ‘When I want to read a book, I write one.’ This pleasantry, as it was thought at the time, now sounds like truth. His limited knowledge, especially of standard works, contrasts curiously with his versatility and fertility…
Another attribution to Disraeli occurs in 1870 in Macmillan’s Magazine. The quote is used to present an unflattering profile [MBD]:
This is the kind of talking and writing in which Mr. Disraeli delights and excels. He once replied to an acquaintance who asked him whether he had read a book: “My dear fellow, when I want to read a book, I write one.” He is philosophically indifferent about the validity of a thought or theory so long as it will bear pointing and polishing.
The version of the quote with the term “novel” substituted for “book” is also popular:
When I want to read a novel, I write one.
The Yale Book of Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attribute these words to Disraeli with citations in 1903 and 1920 respectively [YQD][OQD]. The latter also mentions a fun variation that appears in the humor publication Punch in 1878 [OQP]:
I never read books—I write them.
In conclusion, the saying you asked about is attributed to Benjamin Disraeli as early as 1868 though the intent is not necessarily friendly. QI thanks you for your question and compliments you on your fine associative memory for retrieving the phrase while reading “The Black Swan”.
(Special thanks to the brilliant and beautiful Jay for inspiring this question.)
[BSN] 2007, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Page 95, Random House, New York. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside)
[BDFM] 1868 May, Fraser’s Magazine, The Caucasian Administration in Trouble, Page 670, Longmans, Green, and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
[WIGC] 1824, Tales of a Traveller by Geoffrey Crayon (Pen name for Washington Irving), Volume 1 of 2, To The Reader, Page vii, L. Baudry, Paris. (Google Books full view) link
[BRC] BookRags website, The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations, consule Planco. (Accessed 2010 September 9) link
[MBD] 1870 June, Macmillan’s Magazine, Lothair, Page 153, Column 2, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
[YQD] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Benjamin Disraeli, Page 208, Yale University Press, New Haven.
[OQD] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield”, Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 September)
[OQD] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Punch”, Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 September)