Quote Origin: A House Without Books Is Like a Body Without a Soul

Marcus Tullius Cicero? G. K. Chesterton? Henry Ward Beecher? Mrs. Ashton Yates? John Lubbock? William Forsyth? William Lucas Collins? Apocryphal?

Fresco fragment showing young Cicero reading

Question for Quote Investigator: The most attractive room in a large house is the library. Here are three versions of a germane adage:

(1) A house without books is like a body without a soul.
(2) Without books, a house is but a body without a soul.
(3) A room without books is like a body without a soul.

This saying has been attributed to the ancient Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero and to prominent English author G. K. Chesterton. I have become skeptical because I haven’t been able to find a good citation. Would you please help me

Reply from Quote Investigator: QI has found no evidence that Cicero crafted this adage; however, he did write something pertinent in a letter to Titus Pomponius Atticus. Here is the original Latin followed by a translation from Eric Otto Winstedt of Magdalen College, Oxford. Tyrannio was Cicero’s servant librarian. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit, mens addita videtur meis aedibus. Qua quidem in re mirifica opera Dionysi et Menophili tui fuit. Nihil venustius quam illa tua pegmata, postquam mi sillybis libros illustrarunt.

Since Tyrannio has arranged my books, the house seems to have acquired a soul: and your Dionysius and Menophilus were of extraordinary service. Nothing could be more charming than those bookcases of yours now that the books are adorned with title-slips.

QI conjectures that the adage and attribution to Cicero were inattentively derived from the passage above. The ascription to G. K. Chesterton appeared in the 21st century and is unsupported.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The simile under examination has been used in other expressions. For example, in 1722 a book by religious figure John Monro contained the following:2

A Soul without Faith, is but like a Body without a Soul, a dead, cold Lump.

In 1724 “Origines Hebrææ: The Antiquities of the Hebrew Republick” included a different instance of the simile:3

Prayer without Attention is like a Body without a Soul. Silence is commendable in time of Prayer.

The earliest strong match for the adage located by QI appeared in an 1844 book by Mrs. Ashton Yates titled “A Winter in Italy in a Series of Letters to a Friend”. Yates was taken on a tour of a house, and when she was shown the library she mentioned the adage and tentatively attributed the words to Cicero:4

I think it was Cicero who said that a house without a library is like a body without a soul.

In 1862 the influential U.S. clergyman Henry Ward Beecher published a collection of essays under the title “Eyes and Ears”. Beecher employed a different vivid simile about the absence of books:5

Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.

In 1864 William Forsyth published “Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero”, and the author discussed Cicero’s enthusiasm for books:6

His fondness for books amounted to a passion. He tells Atticus, that when his librarian Tyrannio had arranged his books it seemed as if his house had got a soul; and he is in raptures with a book-case when ornamented with the gay colours of the parchment-covers (sittybæ) in which the precious rolls were kept. We find him at one time begging his friend to send him two of his assistant librarians to help Tyrannio to glue the parchments, and to bring with them a thin skin of parchment to make indexes.

In May 1864 Forsyth’s biography of Cicero was reviewed in “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine”. The unnamed reviewer paraphrased the discussion of books and attributed the adage to Cicero:7

Without books he said, a house was but a body without a soul. He entertained for these treasures not only the calm love of a reader, but the passion of a bibliophile; he was particular about his bindings, and admired the gay colours of the covers in which the precious manuscripts were kept as well as the more intellectual beauties within.

In 1871 Reverend William Lucas Collins published a biography titled “Cicero”. The book contained the same passage that appeared in the book review in “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine”. Thus, Collins was probably the author of the 1864 review:8

Without books, he said, a house was but a body without a soul. He entertained for these treasures not only the calm love of a reader, but the passion of a bibliophile . . .

In 1873 “The Publishers’ Weekly” of New York published the following passage from a speech by John H. Thomas delivered in Dayton, Ohio:9

Cicero was quite a bibliomaniac. No modern bookworm in his library could be more wrapped up in his books than was he. To his friend Atticus he wrote that when his librarian Tyrannis had arranged his books, it seemed as if his house had got a soul.

In 1887 English politician and polymath John Lubbock published “The Pleasures of Life”. Lubbock credited Cicero with a version of the saying using “room” instead of “house”:10

Cicero described a room without books, as a body without a soul. But it is by no means necessary to be a philosopher to love reading.

Confusion about the origin of the saying was expressed in a query published in the London journal “Notes and Queries” in 1888. The message contained a nineteenth century citation and also presented the thematically related passage in Latin. The querent requested a solid reference:11


“Ancient Classics for English Readers,” ‘Cicero,’ p. 42: “Without books, he [Cicero] said, a house was but a body without a soul.” Somewhere else I have read that Cicero called the library the soul of the house. What is the reference? The nearest I can find is ‘Att,’ iv. 8: “Postea vero quam Tyrannio mihi libros disposuit, mens addita videtur meis aedibus.”

In 1894 the periodical “Household News” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania published a piece which contained a variant saying using “library” instead of “books”. The attribution was anonymous:12

“A house without a library is like a body without a soul,” said a wise observer . . .

In 1949 the saying was included in “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” compiled by Burton Stevenson. Unfortunately, the supporting citation simply pointed to Lubbock’s 1887 book:13

A room without books is as a body without a soul.
CICERO. (Lubbock, Pleasures of Life. Ch. 3.)

In 1989 “The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” contained an entry for the saying which oddly credited Lubbock instead of Cicero:14

A room without books is as a body without a soul.
Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury (1834–1913)
British banker, scientist, author

In 2005 “The Knoxville News-Sentinel” of Tennessee printed an item which attributed the saying to a famous English writer:15

A room without books is like a body without a soul.
G. K. Chesterton
English author

In 2020 Djamel Ouis published the compilation “Humorous Wit” in which quotations from Chesterton and Cicero appeared adjacent to one another:16

There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book, and the tired man who wants a book to read.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton

A room without books is like a body without a soul.

The names “Chesterton” and “Cicero” and are close to one another in alphabetical order. Thus, quotations from the two authors sometimes appear adjacent in alphabetized listings. The text above shows that it would be easy for a reader to accidentally reassign the quotation under examination to Chesterton. This is a known misattribution mechanism.

The book “Humorous Wit” appeared in 2020 and the misattribution to Chesterton was already circulating in 2005. Hence, the error was not facilitated by this specific book. But the passage above provides a valuable illustration of mechanism.

In conclusion, after Cicero’s servant Tyrannio arranged his books, Cicero commented that “the house seems to have acquired a soul”. QI hypothesizes that this comment led to the eventual creation of the adage, and its attribution to Cicero. Currently, the 1844 book by Mrs. Ashton Yates contains the first appearance of the adage attributed to Cicero, but future researchers may discover earlier appearances.

Image Notes: Public domain image of a fresco fragment from the Palazzo Mediceo, Milan depicting young Cicero reading. Image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Jane Bella whose message led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bella helpfully pointed to an article on this topic at the IN REBVS Blog which contained the original Latin statement written by Cicero. Thanks also to the 1888 querent in “Notes and Queries” who also pointed to Cicero’s Latin statement.

Update History: On March 18, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1912, Cicero: Letters to Atticus, English Translation by E. O. Winstedt (Magdalen College, Oxford), Volume 1 of 3, Letter VIII, Cicero To Atticus, Greeting, Quote Page 292 and 293, William Heinemann, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2.  1722, A Collection of About Fifty Religious Letters by John Monro (Late Wright in Edinburgh), Letter XXII, Start Page 80, Quote Page 82, (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1724, Origines Hebrææ: The Antiquities of the Hebrew Republick by Thomas Lewis, Volume 1, Chapter 21, Quote Page 427, Printed for Sam Illidge and John Hooke, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1844, A Winter in Italy in a Series of Letters to a Friend by Mrs. Ashton Yates, Volume 2 of 2, Letter XXXVI, Start Page 262, Quote Page 271 and 272, Henry Colburn, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1862, Eyes and Ears by Henry Ward Beecher, Chapter: The Duty of Owning Books, Quote Page 155, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1864, Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero by William Forsyth, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 5: Correspondence and Domestic Life, Quote Page 56, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1864 May, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Forsyth’s Life of Cicero, Start Page 544, Quote Page 553, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1871, Cicero by Rev. W. Lucas Collins (William Lucas Collins), Chapter 3: The Consulship and Catiline, Quote Page 42 and 43, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  9. 1873 September 6, The Publishers’ Weekly, Number 86, On Bookselling and Bookmaking: An Essay read before the Saturday Club of Dayton, O. by John H. Thomas, Start Page 239, Quote Page 240, F. Leypoldt, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  10. 1887, The Pleasures of Life by Sir John Lubbock, Second Edition, Chapter 3: A Song of Books, Note: Delivered at the Working Men’s College, Quote Page 56, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  11. 1888 June 30, Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication, Seventh Series, Section: Queries, Quote Page 507, Column 2, Published at the Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  12. 1894 June, Household News, Volume 2, Number 6, Section: Literary Topics, The Value of Home Libraries by Elizabeth Carpenter, Start Page 512, Quote Page 513, Household News Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  13. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Compiled by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Books, Quote Page 181, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩︎
  14. 1989, The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations by Robert Andrews, Topic: Books, Quote Page 29, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  15. 2005 January 08, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, A Thought, Quote Page B4, Column 3, Knoxville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  16. 2020, Humorous Wit, Compiled by D. Ouis (Djamel Ouis), Topic: Books, Quote Page 69 and 70, Production Management by Into Print www.intoprint.net, Northampton, England. (Google Books Preview) ↩︎