Benjamin Disraeli? William Gladstone? William Makepeace Thackeray? Moses Hadas? A celebrated botanist? A Scotchman? Thomas Bailey Aldrich? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.? Samuel Wilberforce? Max O’Rell?
Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors sent numerous manuscripts to the statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Reportedly, he would send back a wittily ambiguous response:
Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.
This statement might mean that Disraeli would immediately start to read the volume, or it might mean that he would never read the book. A similar response has been credited to William Makepeace Thackeray. Also, I have seen the following variant phrasing:
Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.
Could you determine who is responsible for this type of quip?
Quote Investigator: This amusing remark has been attributed to a large and varied collection of individuals over the past 140 years including: French comedian Max O’Rell, author William Makepeace Thackeray, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and his opposition William Gladstone.
First, QI notes that the phrase can be used in a straight-forward manner without a comical overlay. For example, a letter dated September 11, 1784 from the poet William Cowper used the phrase with the assumption that the text would indeed be read quickly: 1
I know that you will lose no time in reading it, but I must beg you likewise to lose none in conveying it to Johnson, that if he chuses to print it, it may go to the press immediately…
The earliest instance located by QI of an individual wielding the phrase with a humorous intent appeared in an 1871 issue of the British Quarterly Review. The quipster was identified as a botanist, but no name was given: 2
A celebrated botanist used to return thanks somewhat in the following form:—’I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.’ The unfortunate author might put his own construction on this rather ambiguous language.
In 1883 a travel book titled “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” printed the joke and referred to it as “the old equivoque”. The word “equivoque” meant a pun or a phrase with a double meaning: 3
…they may adopt the old equivoque—”We have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”
Also, in 1883 the witticism was printed in the science periodical Nature. The context was an article critical of testimonial letters which clearly indicated that the saying was being used sarcastically. The phrase was called a “well-known formula”: 4
Many testimonials are framed after that well-known formula for acknowledging the receipt of pamphlets which runs as follows:—”Dear Sir,—I beg to thank you for the valuable pamphlet which you have so kindly sent me, and which I will lose no time in reading.” And I heard the other day a testimonial praised because it showed the electors whom not to elect.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1886 the phrase was used in the periodical “Littell’s Living Age”. The names of the jokester and the slighted author were not given: 5
There are many books to which one may apply, in the sarcastic sense, the ambiguous remark said to have been made to an unfortunate author, “I will lose no time in reading your book.”
In 1887 a French humorist who was well known in the period named Max O’Rell used the quip in a book about the Scottish people. The book appeared first in Paris under the title “L’Ami MacDonald” and then in London with the title “Friend Mac Donald”. O’Rell told an anecdote designed to show the wittiness of the Scotch. Below is an excerpt from a review of the French edition in English: 6 7
This dexterity in the use of language to conceal as well as to reveal is admirably illustrated by another anecdote quoted by M. Max O’Rell as a perfect combination of irony and humour.
An English author had sent his latest-born to several literary men, begging them to be kind enough to give him their opinion on the book. Two Scotchmen replied.
— A thousand thanks, said one, for the book you have done me the honour to send. I shall lose no time in reading it.
The second letter was still more subtle.
— I have just read the volume you so kindly sent me. I am quite sure that the intelligent public will appreciate it at its worth.
In September 1889 a version of the anecdote was printed in an Indiana newspaper. The humorous response was made by a “well-known man of letters”: 8
Prominent men are continually importuned to read and comment on new books. It is not every victim that can bring as much tact and wit to his rescue as the one in the following incident: A certain well-known man of letters received from a friend of much ambition, but small literary talent, a volume of portentous length, which he was requested to read and criticise for its author’s benefit. For a moment the recipient of the ponderous tome was staggered by the weight of the burden laid upon him; then a happy inspiration seized him, and snatching up his pen, he addressed his tormentor the following note: “Dear X.—I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”
In November 1889 the tale was told via a dialog between two generic characters named Scribbler and Scather. The book giver was called Scribbler while the recipient critic was called Scather: 9
Scribbler — When is that review of my novel coming out, Scather?
Scather (professional critic) — Well, to tell the truth, I have not read it yet.
Scribbler — Yet when I brought the book to you you assured me that you would lose no time in reading it.
Scather — Well, I have lost no time in reading it yet.
In May 1890 the joke was printed in the popular humor magazine Punch in a feature called “Mr. Punch’s Dictionary of Phrases”. A sequence of phrases was listed together with sardonic commentary on the underlying meaning of each statement. Here are three examples: 10
“Let me be the first, dear, to congratulate you on your well-merited good fortune;” i.e., “She has the deuce’s own luck, and doesn’t deserve it.”
“Thank you so much for your beautiful present, which I shall value for its own sake as well as for the giver’s;” i.e., “Wouldn’t give twopence for the two of ’em.”
“So good of you to send me your new book. I shall lose no time in reading it;” i.e., “No; not a single second.”
In October 1890 another variant of the joke was published in a Wisconsin newspaper. The jape was told via a dialog between the characters Scribbler and Johnson: 11
Scribbler — I’ve just published another novel, Johnson. You ought to lose no time reading it.
Johnson — Thanks for the hint, old man. I’ll be careful not to read it.
For many years the person deploying the quip was unnamed or generic. However, in 1894 the quip was credited to a specific individual named Samuel Wilberforce who was a prominent religious figure in Britain: 12
It is Bishop Wilberforce who in the end comes to his assistance, a happy flash of reminiscence bringing to his mind that prelate’s masterly acknowledgment of a presentation copy addressed to the author. “I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.”
In 1897 the humorous remark was ascribed to William Gladstone, a well-known statesman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: 13
It may be that our resolve is destined to be something like the acknowledgment of Mr. Gladstone in return for a book sent to him by the author: “Dear Sir,—I have duly received your valued book, which I shall lose no time in reading.”
In 1898 the remark was attributed to Lord Beaconsfield, i.e., Benjamin Disraeli in the pages of the New York Times: 14
Beaconsfield was not so amenable, and he very probably did not read a fraction of the books sent him. He had, so The Academy says, a kind of stereotyped form of acknowledgment, somewhat ambiguous in phraseology. It read to the effect that he “would lose no time in reading them” and probably he didn’t.
In 1900 the comical response was ascribed to another literary man who was well-known in the time period. Thomas Bailey Aldrich was an American poet, novelist, and editor: 15
Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who is kind to literary apprentices, is said to have received not long ago from an ambitious young author a volume of forbidding length “for him to read.” For a moment he was staggered, but then a happy inspiration seized him, and he made this delightfully ambiguous reply: “My dear Mr. Smith, I have received your book and shall lose no time in reading it.”
In 1902 the saying was attributed to “Dr. Holmes” in a Salt Lake City newspaper. Dr. Holmes probably referred to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who was an M.D. and a notable literary figure of the 19th century: 16
Whenever Dr. Holmes received a complimentary copy of a book from its self-satisfied author, he used to make haste to write his acknowledgment of the receipt of the volume, thanking the author for sending it and saying: “I thank you for the book you sent me, and will lose no time in reading it.”
In 1903 Benjamin Disraeli was credited with the expression in a biography by Wilfrid Meynell, but the author suggested that the evidence was rather weak: 17
To an author, presenting an impossible book: “Many thanks: I shall lose no time in reading it.”
This ambiguity, fathered upon Disraeli, might very well be his; and if there is as little evidence of the paternity as that which sometimes satisfies a magistrate of sentiment, we can say “Ben trovato” in all truth.
In 1931 a Massachusetts newspaper attributed the joke to the noted author William Makepeace Thackeray: 18
To a notoriously bad writer from whom Thackeray had received a volume he wrote: “I shall lose no time reading your book.”
In 1957 a librarian presented a set of humorous responses for individuals who have received gift books: 19
Harry Bauer, director of libraries at the University of Washington, explains how to thank authors for their gift copies without committing oneself. Here are some handy phrases:
“I shall lose no time reading your book.”
“I could not put it down until I read the last page.”
“I shall look forward to reading it.” (Don’t add when.)
“I’d like to do nothing better.”
In 1982 the quip was printed in “The 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” where it was credited to the classical scholar Moses Hadas: 20
Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.
Moses Hadas (1900-1966) in a letter
In conclusion, this humorous remark has been attributed to a diverse collection of individuals. Currently, the earliest cite points to “a celebrated botanist”. But QI has not yet seen any direct evidence, i.e., a letter from a prominent individual containing the joke. Indeed the quip appeared in many periodicals over a long period of time, so it was probably familiar to a large group of people. A response containing the phrase might have been viewed as an insult.
QI hypothesizes that the ambiguous phrase was rarely used in a response. It was largely restricted to the realm of fictional comical anecdotes.
(Great thanks to Victor Steinbok who found several valuable citations.)
- 1805, The Port – Folio (1801-1827), Volume 5, Issue 45, Original Letters from Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, Page 354, (Letter to Rev. William Unwin dated September 11, 1784), Published by H. Maxwell, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals) ↩
- 1871 October 1, The British Quarterly Review, Article V, Letters and Letter Writing, Start Page 392, Quote Page 411, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1883, “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” by J. Fox Turner [John Fox Turner], Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link ↩
- 1883 August 9, Nature (Weekly), A Result of our Testimonial System, Start Page 341, Quote Page 342, Column 1, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view; HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1886 March 6, Littell’s Living Age, On the Pleasure of Reading (From the Contemporary Review), Page 603, No. 2176, Littell, Son and Co. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1887 October 7, The Literary World, Max O’Rell on the Scotch, Page 307, James Clarke & Co. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1887, Friend Mac Donald by Max O’Rell, Quote Page 32, J. W. Arrowsmith, Bristol. (Internet Archive) link link ↩
- 1889 September 7, The Freeman, No Time Lost, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Indianapolis, Indiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1889 November 02, Galveston Daily News, He Kept His Word, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1890 May 10, Punch, or the London Charivari, Mr. Punch’s Dictionary of Phrases: Epistolatory, Quote Page 219, Column 1, Published at the Punch Office, London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) ↩
- 1890 October 27, The Daily Independent, It Would Be a Loss of Time, Page 2, Column 3, Monroe, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1894, A Beginner by Rhoda Broughton, Quote Page 244, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link ↩
- 1897 January 7, Otago Witness, Passing Notes, Page 38, Column 4, Issue 2236, New Zealand. ↩
- 1898 July 9, New York Times, Saturday Review of Books and Art, Gladstone, Page BR455, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1900 January 17, The Daily Times, Page 2 Column 5, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1902 July 27, The Salt Lake Tribune, Literary Gossip, Page 26, Column 1, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1903, Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography, Of Men and Books, Quote Page 135, Hutchinson & Co. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1931 January 25, Springfield Sunday Union and Republican (Springfield Republican), An Attic Salt-Shaker by W. Orton Tewson, Page 4E (Page 44), Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1957 May 31, The Seattle Times, Mountaineer Players, Plus Goat, Jeep, to Do ‘Teahouse of August Moon’, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1988, 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Selected and compiled by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 523, Page 108, (This book combines three books published previously. The quote appears in the section “The 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” which was published in 1982), A Fawcett Book: Random House Publishing Group, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩