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?

Dear 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.

QI has not yet identified the creator of this comical barb, but QI believes that the most likely target of the mockery was titled “To You I Tell It” by Bill Miller who was a boxing publicist and newspaper columnist. In 1929 Miller collected material from his columns and published it in book form. His work was not universally panned; instead, it initially received praise from colleagues.

In November 1929 the famous journalist and tale-spinner Damon Runyon complimented it by saying, “There is plenty of bang in the little volume.” 1 In December 1929 boxing columnist Marty J. Berg also published a positive remark, “His book, a 250 page affair, is positively hilarious from cover to cover.” 2

Almost three decades later in 1958, Miller’s book was mentioned by Sid Ziff who wrote “The Inside Track” column in the “Mirror News” of Los Angeles, California. Ziff stated that the clever insult under examination was aimed at the book by an unnamed reviewer. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 3

Miller, who contributes now and again to Inside Track, once wrote a book titled “To You I Tell It.” It received mixed reviews. One critic said: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force . . .”

The joke was rephrased and reassigned to Dorothy Parker in 1962 by publisher Bennett Cerf who enjoyed collecting and popularizing quotations. Details are given further below.

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: 4

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.

The quip under scrutiny exaggerates and modifies the phrase “lightly thrown aside” to generate humor.

In 1894 a joke was published that exploited the ambiguity of the phrase “laid it aside with great pleasure”: 5 6

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: 7

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: 8

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: 9

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: 10

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.”

In April 1928 Parker once again depicted a book as a projectile in her column in The New Yorker. She was so unhappy with “Beauty and the Beast” by Kathleen Norris that she decided defenestration was required: 11

I’m much better now, in fact, than I was when we started. I wish you could have heard that pretty crash “Beauty and the Beast” made when, with one sweeping, liquid gesture, I tossed it out of my twelfth-story window.

In 1929 Bill Miller published “To You I Tell It”, and some positive reactions appeared in newspapers as noted previously in this article.

In 1958 columnist Sid Ziff printed the first known instance of the barb. It was aimed at Miller’s book, and the creator of the joke was unnamed: 12

Miller, who contributes now and again to Inside Track, once wrote a book titled “To You I Tell It.” It received mixed reviews. One critic said: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force . . .”

In February 1960 the joke was reprinted in the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest with credit directly to Sid Ziff. The lambasted book was not identified, and the fact that Ziff had specified an anonymous attribution for the quip was not relayed to the readers: 13

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 reprinted the joke. The Mirror-News was acknowledged, but Ziff’s name was omitted: 14

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 in his widely-syndicated column containing the phrase “thrown aside lightly” instead of “lightly thrown aside”. Cerf ascribed the words to Dorothy Parker, but he did not provide a citation: 15

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: 16

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: 17

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: 18

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 believes that Bill Miller’s book “To You I Tell It” was the target of this gibe. The creator of the joke is unknown. Sid Ziff helped to popularize it, but he disclaimed credit.

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 other 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 jest. 19 “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand has also been named as the object of excoriation, but QI has located no support 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. Thanks to writersalmanac.org which posted an article that included the Parker quotation in the 1928 citation.)

Update History: On June 19, 2015 the 1928 citation was added. On June 25, 2021 three citations were added with dates November 30, 1929; December 4, 1929; and December 18, 1958. Also, the body of the article and the conclusion were partially rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1929 November 30, Allentown Morning Call, Damon Runyon Rambles Along by Damon Runyon, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1929 December 4, The Evening News, Breezy Bits O’ Boxing by Marty J. Berg, Quote Page 17, Column 7, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1958 December 18, Mirror News, The Inside Track by Sid Ziff (Mirror News Sports Editor), Part 4, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1870 August, The American Educational Monthly, Current Publications, Start Page 358, Quote Page 359, J. W. Schermerhorn & Co., New York. (ProQuest American Periodical Series)
  5. 1894 May 5, Rocky Mountain News, Quips of the Day, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1894 May 6, The Sunday Spy (Worcester Daily Spy), Section: Part II, Newspaper Waifs, Quote Page 11, Column 3,Worcester, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1905 July 29, Cleveland Leader, Just By the Way, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1922 February 18, Cincinnati Post, Village Gossip: Letter from Cumminsville Correspondent, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 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)
  10. 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)
  11. 1928 April 14, The New Yorker, Reading and Writing: Mrs. Norris and the Beast by Constant Reader (Dorothy Parker), (Review of “Beauty and the Beast” by Kathleen Norris), Start Page 97, Quote Page 98, (Accessed archives.newyorker.com on June 19, 2015; database of page scans)
  12. 1958 December 18, Mirror News, The Inside Track by Sid Ziff (Mirror News Sports Editor), Part 4, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1960 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 76, On the Critical Side, Quote Page 180,  The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  14. 1960 April 4, Oakland Tribune, (Freestanding short item with title “IN BRIEF”), Quote Page 16, Column 7, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  15. 1962 October 10, Lewiston Evening Journal, Try And Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 15, Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. (Google News Archive)
  16. 1967 April 23, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Larry Wolters’ Gag Bag, Quote Page 40, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  17. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, (Freestanding short note), Quote Page 116, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1975 November 17, Press-Telegram, Karen’s special’d be ‘ordinary’ by Earl Wilson, Quote Page A11, Column 5, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  19. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Dorothy Parker, Page 352, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)