Read In Order To Live

Gustave Flaubert? Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent French literary figure Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, placed great value on reading. The following statement is often attributed to him:

Read in order to live.

Would you please determine whether these words are apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: In 1867 Gustave Flaubert wrote a letter containing advice to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie. An English translation appeared in 1895. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

You ask me what books to read. Read Montaigne; read him slowly, steadily. He will calm you. And do not listen to people who talk of his egotism. You will like him, you will see. But do not read, as the children read, to amuse yourself, nor as ambitious people read, to get instruction. No! read to live!

Make an intellectual atmosphere for your soul, which shall be composed of the emanation of all the great minds. Study Shakespeare and Goethe thoroughly. Read translations of the Greek and Roman authors,—Homer, Petronius, Plautus, Apuleius, etc.

The phrasing above differs slightly from the version specified by the questioner; however, some other translations provide an exact match.

Below are additional selected citations.

The original text of Flaubert’s letter was included in a multi-volume edition of his correspondence that was published in 1925. Here is the excerpt above in French: 2

Vous me demandez quels livres lire. Lisez Montaigne, lisez-le lentement, posément! Il vous calmera. Et n’écoutez pas les gens qui parlent de son égoïsme. Vous l’aimerez, vous verrez. Mais ne lisez pas, comme les enfants lisent, pour vous amuser, ni comme les ambitieux lisent, pour vous instruire. Non, lisez pour vivre.

Faites à votre âme une atmosphère intellectuelle qui sera composée par l’émanation de tous les grands esprits. Étudiez à fond Shakespeare et Goethe. Lisez des traductions des auteurs grecs et romains, Homère, Pétrone, Plaute, Apulée, etc.

The popular and prolific English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote on this theme about twenty years earlier in 1848 within his novel “The Caxtons” which was serialized in “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine”. A character in the story employed antimetabole cleverly when imparting guidance: 3

Master books, but do not let them master you. Read to live, not live to read.

In 1911 the words of Flaubert were recalled in a filler item published in a Kosciusko, Mississippi newspaper: 4

Do not read as children read, to amuse yourself, nor as ambitious people read, to get instruction. No! read to live; make an intellectual atmosphere for your soul, which shall be composed of the emanation of all great minds.
—Flaubert.

In 1961 a newspaper in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada credited Flaubert with the phrase “read in order to live”: 5

“Do not read”, he wrote, “as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

The 1985 reference “A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations” included the saying although QI does not know how the anomalous date was assigned: 6

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
—Gustave Flaubert,
letter to Mlle de Chantepie, June 1875

In conclusion, Gustave Flaubert did write this comment in a letter in 1867. The English renderings of the original French text varied slightly. Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a longer thematically related remark in 1848.

Image Notes: Bronze statue of young woman reading from Momentmal at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Rhianna Walton of Powell’s City of Books whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1895, Gustave Flaubert As Seen in His Works and Correspondence by John Charles Tarver, Letter from Gustave Flaubert to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, Date: June 16, 1867, Start Page 232, Quote Page 233 and 234, Archibald Constable and Company, Westminster, U.K. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1925, Gustave Flaubert Correspondance, Troisième Série (1854-1869), Letter from Gustave Flaubert to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, Date: 16 Juin 1867, Start Page 327, Quote Page 329 and 330, Bibliothèque Charpentier, Paris. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1848 May, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 63, Number 391, The Caxtons, Part II, Chapter 7, (Serialized novel), Start Page 525, Quote Page 525, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1911 October 27, The Star Ledger, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Kosciusko, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1961 June 17, The Ottawa Journal, A Time to Taste Books, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Topic: Purpose for Reading, Quote Page 245, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)