Category Archives: Abigail Van Buren

The Man Who Does Not Read Has No Advantage Over the Man Who Cannot Read

Mark Twain? Inland Steel Company? Quin Ryan? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

twainread01Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain is credited with a marvelous saying about the importance of reading:

A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

I was unable to determine when this saying was created, but I did find another version while searching:

The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

Now, I am suspicious that this adage may not be from Twain. Could you take a look?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this maxim. Quotation expert Ralph Keyes and Twain specialist Barbara Schmidt both indicate that the connection to Twain is unsupported. 1 2

The earliest conceptual match for the expression located by QI was printed in “The Southern Workman” in 1910. The words of the state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia were recorded as he advocated support for libraries that would provide quality books for children. The superintendent used rhetorical questions that equated individuals who cannot read with those who do not read: 3

Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?

The earliest close match found by QI was published in October 1914 in an item reprinted from the periodical “The Dodge Idea”. Oddly, the context was advertising. An exponent of delivering advertisements through the mail was unhappy that these messages were often thrown away unread. The adage was used twice in the article: once in the header and once in the body, but the statement was not attributed: 4

A Man Who Does Not Read Has No Appreciable Advantage Over the Man Who Cannot Read

The man who doesn’t read hasn’t any advantage over the man who can’t read; yet there are many men who consider that the waste basket is the only place for second-class mail. The circular matter that goes through the mails is not intended to be a filler for waste baskets, but its purpose is to suggest a solution of certain problems.

The first ascription to Mark Twain found by QI was published in 1945. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 16, 116 and 274, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. website edited by Barbara Schmidt, Comment at bottom of webpage titled “Reading”. (Accessed December 11, 2012) link
  3. 1910 July, The Southern Workman, Volume 39, Number 7, [Comment by Joseph D. Eggleston, Jr. state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia], Start Page 383, Quote Page 384, The Press of The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Hampton, Virginia. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1914 October, Mill Supplies, Volume 4, Number 10, The Waste Basket Waster, [Acknowledgement to “The Dodge Idea”], Quote Page 24, Column 2, Crawford Publishing Group, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link

You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

Ann Landers? Abigail Van Buren? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Samuel Johnson? Malcolm Forbes? Paul Eldridge? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? James D. Miles? Dan Reeves?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am attempting to verify the following quotation because it will appear in a forthcoming book, but I have discovered multiple attributions:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

As I searched further I found a similar quotation with additional attributions:

The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.

Can you help determine the origin of this saying?

Quote InvestigatorQI agrees that these two expressions and several others can be grouped together because they are semantically closely aligned. Interestingly, members of this set have been employed by (or attributed to) a wide variety of individuals including: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, Paul Eldridge, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.

The earliest close match for this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:

Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.

In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

A close variant of the saying under investigation was presented in the book and featured prominently in multiple advertisements that appeared in the New Yorker magazine for the collection in 1979 [SCMF] [NYMF]:

“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.”

—from The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm

Today a visitor to the Forbes magazine website can search a quotation database maintained by the publisher called “Thoughts on the Business of Life” that contains more than 10,000 entries. The version of the adage in “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” is available in the database [TBMF].

The famous advice giving sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers used versions of this saying in the 1970s. But QI has not yet located any evidence of use before 1974 for either woman. The attachment of the quotation to the notable figures Samuel Johnson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe appears to be unsupported by current evidence.

QI has also examined a related saying: If you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors. Click here to read the other article.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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