Master Books, But Do Not Let Them Master You. Read To Live, Not Live To Read

Creator: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, popular and prolific English writer

Context: Bulwer-Lytton wrote on this theme 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. Emphasis added to excerpt: 1

My father no longer sought to curb my intellectual aspirings. He had too great a reverence for scholarship not to wish me to become a scholar if possible; though he more than once said to me somewhat sadly, “Master books, but do not let them master you. Read to live, not live to read. One slave of the lamp is enough for a household; my servitude must not be a hereditary bondage.”

Related Article: Read In Order To Live.


  1. 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

A Good Teacher Is Like a Candle that Consumes Itself While Lighting the Way for Others

Giovanni Ruffini? Mustafa Kemal Atatürk? Charles Wiseman? Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Emir Abdelkader? Henry Ward Beecher? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Being a teacher is wonderfully fulfilling, but it is also exhausting. The following astute simile reflects this tension:

A teacher is like a candle that consumes itself to light the way for others.

This saying has been credited to the Italian poet Giovanni Ruffini and the Turkish statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a 1764 book titled “A Complete English Grammar on a New Plan” by Charles Wiseman. While discussing figurative language Wiseman presented a collection of example similes; four are shown below. Interestingly, a candle was likened to an “author” instead of a “teacher”; both may serve an educational role. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

  • Like snow that melts away on the ground as it falls, i.e. words
  • Like a candle which lights others, and burns out itself, i.e. an author, or
  • Like a dog in a wheel that toils to roast meat for others eating, i.e. an author
  • Like a bucket at the bottom of a deep well, he must labour hard that will draw it up, i.e. truth

Wiseman presented thirty-two similes in this textbook section, and QI conjectures that most of them were already in circulation; thus, he may be credited with popularizing the candle simile but not constructing it.

Giovanni Ruffini was born in 1807, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881; hence, neither crafted this simile.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Good Teacher Is Like a Candle that Consumes Itself While Lighting the Way for Others


  1. 1764, A Complete English Grammar on a New Plan: For the Use of Foreigners and Such Natives as would acquire a Scientifical Knowledge of their own Tongue by Charles Wiseman, Quote Page 383, Printed for W. Nicol, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, London. (Google Books Full View) link

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.

Continue reading Read In Order To Live


  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