Since we began this blog back in 2012, we’ve gathered up some very wise, witty, and, above all, true one-liners about books, from writers, critics, and other notable people down the ages.
Below is our pick of these pithy quotations: the funniest and truest quotations about books we’ve found. All of them are sourced, with a bit of context for each, since many of these quotations appear elsewhere online but without any information about their origins, or even whether they’re genuine. And as Abraham Lincoln never said, ‘The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.’
Charles Dickens: ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’
This quotation from one of the funniest writers in all of English literature, Charles Dickens, is found in his second novel, Oliver Twist. The kindly Mr Brownlow sees young Oliver admiring his bookshelves, and tells him: ‘You shall read them if you behave well … and you will like that, better than looking at the outsides,– that is, in some cases, because there are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’
Quite. Although we’re told we should never judge a book by its cover, sometimes the cover really is the best thing about a book.
Groucho Marx: ‘From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend on reading it.’
Any list of funny quotations about books should include something from Groucho Marx, and this remains perhaps the best-known. It’s not a quotation from a Marx Brothers’ film but rather a blurb Marx contributed for the 1928 book Dawn Ginsberg’s Revenge by the American wit, S. J. Perelman.
W. H. Auden: ‘One cannot review a bad book without showing off.’
Taken from Auden’s non-fiction collection, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, this quotation strikes at a truth of much book-reviewing, and sees Auden rejecting the delight we take in reading a hatchet-job review of a bad book.
G. C. Lichtenberg: ‘When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?’
Sticking with the theme of reading and reviewing books: anyone who’s written a book and received negative (but somewhat unhelpful and even asinine) feedback from a reader will be able to identify with this witty quotation from the German scientist and philosopher, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-99). The quotation is found in his Notebook D, kept between 1773 and 1775.
Terry Pratchett: ‘To a soul attuned to the subtle rhythms of a library, there are few worse sights than a hole where a book ought to be.’ Terry Pratchett – Sir Terry, of course – wrote the funniest series of fantasy novels ever produced with the Discworld books.
In Guards! Guards, the Librarian at Unseen University (who is an orangutan who can only say ‘Oook’) notices that one of the books is missing from the library shelves.
Thomas Fuller: ‘Some men live like moths in libraries, not being better for the books, but the books the worse for them, which they only soil with their fingers.’
Sticking with libraries, the comical image conjured up by Thomas Fuller (1608-61) here earns this funny quotation its place in this list. It’s taken from his posthumously published The History of the Worthies of England (1662), where Fuller contrasts such moth-men with Dr Thomas James (c. 1573-1629), who was the first man to be in charge of the Bodleian Library at Oxford during the early seventeenth century.
Nancy Mitford: ‘I have only ever read one book in my life, and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.’
Mitford wasn’t expressing her personal view here: this quotation appeared in Mitford’s 1949 novel, Love in a Cold Climate. The novel White Fang is, of course, Jack London’s canine adventure set among the frozen landscape of Canada during the Klondike gold rush.
Bertrand Russell: ‘There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.’
From Russell’s 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness. How many book-lovers have to hold their hands up and admit that, occasionally, they have read (or at least finished) a book simply so they could announce that fact?
Nora Ephron: ‘I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I’ll know how it turned out.’
Although written by the legendary Hollywood scriptwriter Nora Ephron, this line was spoken by Billy Crystal’s character Harry in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. Harry goes on to say, ‘That, my friend, is a dark side.’
Henry Ward Beecher: ‘Be certain that your house is adequately and properly furnished – with books rather than furniture.’
‘It is a man’s duty to have books,’ the American clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) advised in his 1862 book Eyes and Ears. ‘A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessaries of life. Be certain that your house is adequately and properly furnished – with books rather than with furniture.’
Taking such advice literally is unlikely to land you a job on the sales team at Ikea, but it’s true that books do indeed furnish a room.
Mark Twain: ‘“Classic”. A book which people praise and don’t read.’
No selection of the funniest quotations about books would be complete without that fecund source of witty bookish quotations, Mark Twain.
Many Twain quotations are apocryphal and unsourced, but this classic bookish sentiment (which many of us who haven’t read a particular classic novel we feel we ought to have read can doubtless relate to) is from Twain’s 1897 travelogue Following the Equator.
If you enjoyed this selection of the some of the funniest quotations about books from the great and good of literature, you might also enjoy this selection of great sourced author quotations and these Mark Twain one-liners.