Ambrose Bierce? Alan Le May? Jack Benny? Mark Twain? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The increasing popularity of ebooks is threatening to make one of my favorite quotations obsolete. The wonderful humorist Ambrose Bierce was asked to evaluate a lengthy soporific tome and according to legend he handed in a devastating and hilarious one-line review:
The covers of this book are too far apart.
Did Bierce really write this, and what was the name of the book being evaluated?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of a version of this quip was printed in 1899. The first citation connecting the joke to Ambrose Bierce was published more than two decades later in 1923. Details for this cite are presented further below. Bierce disappeared in 1913 and his final fate is still mysterious. The linkage of the saying to Bierce is weak because the 1923 claim appeared so late.
In September 1899 the “Logansport Pharos” of Indiana printed a short humor item in which two stock figures named “Author” and “Friend” exchanged remarks. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
An Honest Criticism.
Author—Now I want your honest opinion. Tell me what faults you see in my book.
Friend—Well, for one thing, I think the covers are too far apart.—New York Journal.
The paper listed an acknowledgement to a New York periodical, but it did not provide an attribution. The same comical dialog was published in other newspapers in 1899 such as the “North Adams Transcript” of Massachusetts, 2 the “Ann Arbor Daily Argus” of Michigan, 3 the “Biloxi Daily Herald” of Mississippi, 4 and the “Duluth Evening Herald” of Minnesota which acknowledged the “San Francisco Examiner” of California. 5
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
By 1905 a different version of the joke employing the stock figures “Scribbles” and “Criticus” was in circulation. “The Daily Northwestern” of Oshkosh, Wisconsin and the “Bedford Daily Mail” of Bedford, Indiana printed this instance: 6 7
Scribbles—”Have you read my new book?”
Criticus—”Yes. I have only one fault to find with it.”
Scribbles—”And what is that, pray?”
Criticus—“The covers are entirely too far apart.”—Exchange.
In 1913 the author of the book “Early History of Idaho” stated that he could write about many topics, but he did not wish the volume to become too rambling and lengthy: 8
…the writer desires to avoid the criticism that his book is too far apart between covers.
In 1917 a newspaper in Jackson, Michigan printed an instance: 9
The Gentle Critic.
“You have read my new story?”
“What do you think of it?”
“To be perfectly candid with you, I think the covers are too far apart.”
In 1923 the prominent humorist Irvin S. Cobb penned a column that appeared in the “Boston Globe” and other papers. Cobb attributed a version of the joke to Ambrose Bierce though the wording given was not as succinct as the modern instance: 10 11
Ambrose Bierce was asked by a young Californian to pass judgment upon the latter’s first published work. After reading it, Bierce summed up his review in the following lines:
“The main criticism which I would offer is that the covers of this volume are entirely too far apart.”
The passage above is currently the earliest evidence found by QI linking Bierce to the jape. Cobb’s tale suggested that the statement was written or spoken to an individual and was not published as a review.
Robert H. Davis wrote an introduction dated December 8, 1924 to the second volume of a twelve volume collection of “The Work of Stephen Crane”. Davis described meeting and conversing with Ambrose Bierce, and he mentioned the humorous book review credited to Bierce. However, there was no evidence that Davis heard the review directly from Bierce. It was possible that Davis learned about the review many years after he met with Bierce. 12
This, coming from the brilliant critic who wrote that classic single-line review, “The covers of this book are too far apart”…
In November 1928 “The Bookman” published an article titled “Ambrose Bierce: An Analysis of the Perverse Wit that Shaped His Work” by Wilson Follett. The author discussed Bierce’s style of humor and presented the quip as an illustration of “that neglected weapon, understatement”: 13
A good enough example is his celebrated newspaper review, “The covers of this book are too far apart”.
Also in November the “Evening Tribune” of San Diego, California published a column called “Bob Davis Recalls” that included a story about Bierce’s interactions with a writer in California. This personalized instance of the saying used “your book” instead of “this book”: 14
A California authoress sent a manuscript to Ambrose Bierce with the request that he give her “a criticism in one sentence and drop further comment.” Something was heard to drop all up and down the Pacific coast when he replied: “The covers of your book are too far apart.”
In December 1928 a newspaper in Oakland, California reprinted a short comical item from a Detroit, Michigan paper: 15
Detroit News: The United States Supreme Court’s order on litigants in New York to submit new briefs which are shorter and to the point is remindful of Ambrose Bierce’s reply to an aspiring young authoress: “The covers of your book are too far apart.”
In 1929 a biographical work titled “Bitter Bierce: A Mystery of American Letters” by C. Hartley Grattan was published, and the author labeled the quotation a “classic single-line review” based on the comment by Robert H. Davis given previously:
The covers of this book are too far apart.
In January 1929 a meeting of Californian librarians was held in Sacramento, and a literary critic for a local publication spoke to the assembly. He asserted that Bierce delivered his witticism while evaluating a book of poetry: 19
In closing his talk Mr. McWilliams told of one of the shortest reviews ever written. This was composed by Ambrose Bierce upon being asked to review a slender volume of verse and was very much to the point. He wrote “The covers of this book are too far apart.”
In 1934 a columnist in “The Evening Tribune” of San Diego, California retold one of the anecdotes featuring Bierce. However, the role of Bierce was reassigned to Alan Le May who was a novelist and screenplay writer: 20
A resident of La Jolla who occasionally writes for publication with indifferent success recently submitted one of his books to Alan Le May with the request that he voice his criticism thereof in a single sentence and refrain from elaboration. That was a cinch for Alan. “The covers of your book are too far apart,” he wrote.
In 1952 the popular comedian Joey Adams published a joke book which included the following: 21
Jack Benny said, “Your book is fine. The only trouble is the covers are too far apart.”
In 1953 a writer in an Ohio newspaper reassigned the quip to one of the most famous humorists in the United States: 22
Rising manufacturing costs are now providing thinner books. Authors and publishers are now heeding Mark Twain’s famous book review, “The covers of this book are too far apart.”
In conclusion, no attribution was given in the earliest instances for this gibe; hence, the coiner was anonymous. Also, no specific book was named. It is possible that Ambrose Bierce spoke or wrote this remark, but the support is weak because attributions only appeared many years after his disappearance. This analysis is based on a snapshot of what is known to QI today. Future research discoveries may change this conclusion.
Update History: On February 8, 2014 the citation for the introduction by Robert H. Davis dated December 8, 1924 was added to the article. On February 11, 2014 citations for the “Logansport Pharos” and “North Adams Transcript were added.
(Special thanks to Stephen Goranson for pointing to the 1924 introduction by Davis and for his valuable research efforts on this topic. Great thanks to Andrew Steinberg for locating the September 1899 citation in the North Adams Transcript.)
- 1899 September 28, Logansport Pharos (Logansport Pharos Tribune), An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Logansport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1899 September 29, North Adams Transcript, An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 6, Column 5, North Adams, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1899 October 11, Ann Arbor Daily Argus, An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1899 November 14, Biloxi Daily Herald (Daily Herald), An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Biloxi, Mississippi. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1899 November 9, Duluth Evening Herald, Autumn Zephyrs, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Duluth, Minnesota. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1905 June 19, The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern), Notes By The Funny Men, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1905 June 27, Bedford Daily Mail, Our Budget of Fun, Between Friends, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Bedford, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1913, Early History of Idaho by W. J. McConnell (ex-U. S. Senator and Governor), Quote Page 342, Published by Authority of the Idaho State Legislature, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale, California, Printed by The Caxton Printers in Caldwell, Idaho. (Internet Archive archive.org) link link ↩
- 1917 August 18, Jackson Citizen Press (Jackson Citizen Patriot), Random Shots, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1923 February 13, Boston Globe, My Favorite Stories by Irvin S. Cobb, Some Lessons in Letter Writing, Quote Page 16, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1923 February 17, Syracuse Herald Saturday, My Favorite Stories by Irvin S. Cobb, Some Lessons in Letter Writing, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1963, The Work of Stephen Crane by Stephen Crane, Edited by Wilson Follett, Volume 2, (Introduction by Robert H. Davis; dated December 8, 1924), Start Page ix, Quote Page x, Published by Russell & Russell, New York. (Reissue by Russell & Russell of Alfred A. Knopf edition) (Verified on paper in 1963 edition) ↩
- 1928 November, The Bookman: A Review of Books and Life, Ambrose Bierce: An Analysis of the Perverse Wit that Shaped His Work by Wilson Follett, Start Page 284, Quote Page 287 and 288, Published by Dodd, Mead, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals Series III) ↩
- 1928 November 27, Evening Tribune, Section: Editorial Page, Bob Davis Recalls, Quote Page 4, Column 6, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1928 December 21, Oakland Tribune Friday, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 26, Column 5, Oakland, California. (“Supreme Court” was not capitalized in the original text)(NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Literary criticism, Page 257, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Ambrose Bierce, Page 85, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations (Second edition), Edited by Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner, Section: Ambrose Bierce, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed January 29, 2014) ↩
- 1929 April, News Notes of California Libraries, Volume 24, Number 2, Sixth District Meeting: Held in Los Angeles on January 12, 1929, Morning Session, Quote Page 137, California Library Association, California State Printing Office, Sacramento, California. (Internet Archive archive.org) link link ↩
- 1934 February 5, Evening Tribune, The Fat Chance Column by Picaroon, Quote Page 4, Column 2, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1952, Joey Adams’ Joke Book by Joey Adams, Quote Page 12, Frederick Fell, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1953 November 27, Coshocton Tribune, Section: The Red and Black: Coshocton High School News, Just Browsing, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Coshocton, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) ↩