How reading shapes us

For many years I have loved this quote: “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” I’m not sure where I first heard it, but it was attributed to Oscar Wilde. However, I’d never found an original source – it’s not in Dorian Gray or The Importance of Being Earnest – and somehow it didn’t quite sound like him. I searched online again recently and found this Quote Investigator piece from 2019, which gives a more likely source (Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter) and explains how the mix-up occurred: Potter and Wilde each had a quote attributed to them in the “Reading” section of The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases.

I was able to request the 1965 reprint of this nearly 3000-page book from my library system and see for myself on page 1939:

section of page 1939 of

“If you cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.” -Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying (1889)

“It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” -Rev. D.F. [sic] Potter, Slogan, to encourage un-prescribed reading (1927)

So there we have it – the likely origin of the mis-attribution. But why is this quote important, and what does it mean? There’s also the poetry and rhythm and repetition of it; it’s almost iambic. But I think it’s stuck with me all these years because I didn’t completely understand it when I first heard it; of course, I heard it out of context, and the context helps.

Potter was urging students to read more than just what was assigned to them, to go above and beyond. Our assigned reading may not truly interest us; we’ve all had the experience of re-reading a paragraph several times without really absorbing it. As Samuel Johnson writes, “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention (Boswell, Life, 1777, quoted on page 1938 of Macmillan).

What Potter seems to be saying is that what you read in your free time determines what kind of person you will be. And I think these days we can expand the definition of “read,” or at the very least include all kinds of reading/listening/watching: car manuals, political podcasts, history books, sung-through musicals, fairytales, cookbooks, how-to books, game instructions, long e-mails from school superintendents, nonprofits’ annual reports. Everything we read, or consume, makes us what we are – or put another way, “you are what you eat.”

Some more quotes on reading from The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases:

Some read to think,–these are rare; some to write,–these are common; and some to talk,–and these form the great majority. (C.C. Colton, Lacon, Vol. ii, No. 9, 1820)

To read a book for the first time is to make the acquaintance of a new friend; to read it a second time is to meet an old one. (S.G. Champion, Racial Proverbs, p. 351, 1938, A Chinese proverb)

It is a tie between men to have read the same book. (R.W. Emerson, Journals, 1864)

‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book. (Emerson, Society and Solitude: Success, 1870)

Reading is the best medicine for a sicke man, the best musicke for a sadde man, the best counsel for a desperate man, the best comfort for one afflicted. (John Florio, Firste Fruites, fo. 52, 1578)

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library. By Hari Krishnan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

2 thoughts on “How reading shapes us

  1. Your site is telling me that my comment can’t be posted, so I’ll email it to you instead! > quote_type > Thanks for introducing me to that quote. My favorite part of it is “when you can’t help it.” Not only do we become what we read/consume, but it settles at our core, such that it’s what comes through when we’re suffering, or simply have our guard down. > > When I’m not in school (and it’s been a while now!), I often assign reading, or other kinds of study, to myself. I know you do the same. (MOOCs!) I wonder where you’d see that in the same category as free time, or “you don’t have to.” I *don’t* have to, but if I didn’t assign myself, I probably wouldn’t! I guess I see it as a spectrum rather than an either/or: the Emma Straub ARC I’m about to start > the nonfiction book about museums > the nonprofit tax report I skimmed today to inform a donation. Hope it’s okay that I comment so frequently on your posts. I love getting comments on Library&, but I know not everyone does!

  2. Not sure why it would do that. Please don’t worry about commenting too much – I love hearing your thoughts! (I read your blog through feedly, or I’d comment on yours more.) I think anything self-assigned counts as something you’re choosing to do in your free time – because it is!

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