The curious origin of a famous quotation
‘The book to read is not the one that thinks for you but the one which makes you think’ is a quotation that is often attributed to Harper Lee, the author of the seminal work of twentieth-century American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. But did Harper Lee originate this quotation?
Numerous websites give the credit to Harper Lee, it’s true. (See, for instance, these pages on Goodreads and Bustle, and this book.) It’s been shared numerous times on social media with Lee’s name attached to it. But it doesn’t feature in her Wikiquote page, and cannot be traced to any known interview she gave, nor to either of the two novels published in her lifetime, To Kill a Mockingbird or Go Set a Watchman. Did Lee actually say it?
Well, we cannot be sure she didn’t – absence of evidence may not, in this case, be evidence of absence – but we can be sure that, if Lee did ever say it, she was quoting an earlier originator of the quotation. The originator in question was Dr James McCosh (1811-94), who is credited with the phrase in numerous publications dating from before Harper Lee was born. Charles Francis Richardson’s The Choice of Books (1881), for instance, has: ‘Dr. McCosh says: “The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.”’ Similarly, volume 8 of The International Good Templar (1895), has ‘The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.—McCosh.’ The phrase seems firmly attributable and traceable to James McCosh, a Scottish philosopher associated with the Scottish School of Common Sense. In 1868, he emigrated to the United States, where he was president of Princeton University (when it was still known as the College of New Jersey) for the next twenty years.
Quite how the quotation became attached to Harper Lee is unclear. But it reflects the reaction that many readers have had to her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been a popular set text in schools for many years precisely because it encourages people to think. So it may be that Harper Lee ended up being credited for the quotation because it chimes with the experience of reading that millions of people have had, thanks to her seminal novel.
The full quotation from McCosh (at least according to several online sources, though currently unconfirmed) reveals that he may have had a particular book in mind – namely the Book of Books: ‘The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think. No other book in the world equals the Bible for that.’
This is the latest in an occasional series of posts that delve into the curious origins of literary quotations. Previous posts include our research into the history of the quotations ‘Everyone has a book in them’, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’, and ‘I am not young enough to know everything’.
Image: Nelle Harper Lee, c. 1962 (author unknown); Wikimedia Commons; public domain.