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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

No book is so bad as to not have something of use in some part of it. (Nullum esse librum tam malum, ut non in aliqua parte prodesset) Pliny Pliny the Younger, Epist.3,5,10

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This may be a good phrase to celebrate World Book Day, which according to UNESCO is celebrated on 23 April every year since 1995. On that day, in 1616, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare and the poet Garcilaso de la Vega, the Inca, died.

The sentence  first appears in a letter from Pliny the Younger to his friend Bebio Macro. In this  letter he applies it to his uncle, the famous naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in the interests of science.


Pliny Episuolae,3,5,10:

Dicere etiam solebat nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset”.

Then it may appear with some slight variant, such as:

Nullus est liber tam malus, ut non aliqua parte prosit

I quote a small fragment of the letter, to contextualize the phrase:

To Baebius Macrus.
I was delighted to find that you are so zealous a student of my uncle's books that you would like to possess copies of them all, and that you ask me to give you a complete list of them. I will play the part of an index for you, and tell you, moreover, the order in which they were written, for this is a point that students are interested to know.
…….
On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, "Did you not catch the meaning?" When his friend said "yes," he remarked, "Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption." So jealous was he of every moment lost. 
(Translated by John B. Firth)

C.Plinius Baebio Macro Suo S(alutem)

Pergratum est mihi quod tam diligenter libros avunculi mei lectitas, ut habere omnes velis quaerareque qui sint omnes. Fungar indicis partibus, atque  etiam quo sint ordine scripti notum tibi faciam: est enim haec quoque studiosis non iniucunda cogniti.
….
Reversus domum, quod reliquum temporis, studiis reddebat. Post cibum saepe, quem interdiu levem et facile veterum more sumebat, aestate,si quid otii, iacebat in sole, liber legebatur, adnotabat excerpebatque. Nihil enim legit quod non excerperet. Dicere etiam solebat nullum esse librum tam malum, ut non aliqua parte prodesset. Post solem plerumque frigida lavabatur: deinde gustabat dormiebatque minimum:mox quasi alio die studebat in cenae tempus. Super hanc liber legebatur, adnotabatur, et quidem cursim. Memini quondam ex amicis cum lector quaedam perperam pronuntiasset, revocasse et repeti coegisse; huic avunculum meum dixisse “intellexeras nempe?” cum ille adnuisset, “cur ergo revocabas? Decem amplius versus hac tua interpellatione perdidimus.”  Tanta erat parsimonia temporis.

The phrase became a cliché or commonplace in the Renaissance and no author is who do not use on occasion. It is frequently used in the prologues or prefaces to, healing health, few justify the alleged merits of a work.

Logically, it be otherwise used by Erasmus in his Adages, but not as one of them, but upon a curious controversy with Luigi Ricchieri 1453 or 1469 to 1525, Celio Rodigino in Spanish  and  Caelius Rhodiginus in Latin,  professor of Latin and Greek languages and author of a great encyclopedia entitled "Antiquae Lectiones" which aimed to collect all the old knowledge,  like Aulus Gellius in his Noctes Atticae.

It seems that Caelius Rhodiginius was also composing a collection of adages or Latin sentences but the work of Erasmus came before;  so he suspended his collection, although he used  in his  encyclopedia and other works this material. Well, Rodiginius drank in the work of Erasmus and Erasmus also drank in the work of Rodiginus, although neither  recognizeit. In cases where one  used  the source of another, he did not cited them. Erasmus complains of plagiarism (furtum, theft, robbery) in the letter to all philologists, preface to the edition of Basel of Adagia 1533 and that card is where he used the little phrase in question:

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam greets all philologists.

I shall consider these things outrageous to be remembered if I  had not seen it treated seriously by some, who wanted to be like the others who were the first to have considered this example, without seeming to have taken some of my "chiliads" but they had done all the work with their own means and his Mars (his  job). But if they pick what they publish from ancient authors, inasmuch as in them infinite amount of proverbs is that I overlook, why overlooked these you catch many published by me and add so few untreated by me? Why rarely they cited  authors not cited by me? And if they add something new, do they  believe that  they  well conceal the theft with that, if they  put new handles to the old pots? If they  don’t  have  read my selection, with what kind of face they confess that they have nothing in common with me? If they have read it but they want to hide, certainly they should have done it with more diligence and skill of execution so that there they  were no suspects. I certainly even seem versed in good authors, I do not need  rob hidden in the mixes of the latest, however I do not think there is today an author as trivial than he is not worth reading, if he published a book of proverbs, because it's true the saying that there is no book so bad from where you can not get anything good. If I do not want to read those seeking a common argument with yours, is itself a shameful arrogance;  if you hide that you have read, is itself a shameful ambition; to deny the benefit is characteristic of the most shameful ingratitude.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus philologis ómnibus S.D.
Haec indigna ducerem quae commemorentur, nisi uiderem hoc a quibusdam agi
serio, ut primi hoc exemplum induxisse uideantur, ab aliis, ne quid ex meis
Chiliadibus uideantur sumpsisse mutuo, sed rem totam suis auspiciis suoque
Marte confecisse. Atqui si decerpunt ex uetustis autoribus quae produnt, quum in
his resideat infinita prouerbiorum copia quae nos praetermisimus, quur his
praeteritis tam multa congerunt a nobis prodita, tam pauca adferunt nobis
intacta? Quur tam raro citant autores a nobis non citatos? Et si quid paululum
nouent, an credunt ilico bene dissimulatum furtum, si ueteribus ollis nouas
affigant ansas? Si nostra non legerunt, qua fronte profitentur se nihil habere
mecum commune? Si legerunt ac dissimulandum putant, certe diligentia et
dexteritate tractandi perficiendum erat, ne cui suboleret fucus. Ego sane
quanquam ita uersatus uideor in bonis autoribus, ut non magnopere sit opus ex
recentiorum miscellaneis suffurari, tamen nullus est hodie literator tam triuialis
quin, si libellum aederet adagia pollicentem, dignaturus sim eum lectione, quod
uere dictum sit nullum esse librum tam malum unde non aliquid boni possis
decerpere. Nollem legere eos qui tractant argumentum commune tecum, turpis est
arrogantiae: dissimulare quum legeris, turpioris est ambitionis: inficiari
beneficium, turpissimae ingratitudinis.

Another example is the use  that  Spanish Gabriel Alonso de Herrera makes of it, who wrote a book by Cisneros for improving agricultural practice of its time entitled " Agricultura General que trata de la labranza del campo y sus partiucularidades” General Agriculture about  plowing the field and their peculiarities" (1513). Healing in health, facing criticism that anyone can make: what use can have such a book for usually illiterate farmers, he  responds with the Pliny's famous phrase:

"There is no book so bad that somewhere is not helpful, even to occupy the idle a little time and to not exercise vices  from where  tend to be many scandals and sins"

But probably the most famous quotes made in Spanish  are that one of the Lazarillo de Tormes,  another one of Mateo Alemán  in Guzman de Alfarache and the two that makes Cervantes in the Quixote Part II.

In the foreword of Lazarillo, Diego de Mendoza uses it using the authority of Pliny in the direction of  prudent presentation, justifying  to whom may feel some apprehension:

"I have for good that things as mentioned, and never heard of or seen, come to the notice of many, and not are buried in the grave of oblivion; Doing so may be that one who reads them, finds something that him like, and those who do not read it, delight; this that is because  Pliny says "there is no book, however bad it is, than  do not have anything good",  mostly because tastes are not same for all, but what you do not eat, another is lost for it. "

“Yo por bien tengo que cosas tan señaladas, y por ventura nunca oídas ni vistas, vengan a noticia de muchos, y no se entierren en la sepultura del olvido; pues podría ser que alguno que las lea halle algo que le agrade, y a los que no ahondaren tanto los deleite; y a este propósito dice Plinio “que no hay libro, por malo que sea, que no tenga alguna cosa buena” mayormente que los gustos no son todos unos, mas lo que uno no come, otro se pierde por ello.

Guzmán de Alfarache I,33:

Well I see with my rude wit and short studies it was very just to fear  the race and this freedom and license to have been very much; but considering  no book is so bad where there is not found something good, it is possible that where wit was missing, the zeal of leverage I had  will supply, doing some virtuoso effect, it would be pretty award of major works and worthy of forgiveness in such a daring .

Bien veo de mi rudo ingenio y cortos estudios fuera muy justo temer la carrera y haber sido esta libertad y licencia demasiada; mas considerando no haber libro tan malo donde no se halle algo bueno, será posible que en lo que faltó el ingenio supla el celo de aprovechar que tuve, haciendo algún virtuoso efecto, que sería bastante premio de mayores trabajos y digno del perdón de tal atrevimiento.

Cervantes in Chapter 3 of Part II:

History is in a measure a sacred thing, for it should be true, and where the truth is, there God is; but notwithstanding this, there are some who write and fling books broadcast on the world as if they were fritters."
"There is no book so bad but it has something good in it," said the bachelor.
"No doubt of that," replied Don Quixote; "but it often happens that those who have acquired and attained a well-deserved reputation by their writings, lose it entirely, or damage it in some degree, when they give them to the press."
(Translated by John Ormsby)

La historia es como cosa sagrada, porque ha de ser verdadera, y donde está la verdad, está Dios, en cuanto a verdad; pero, no obstante esto, hay algunos que así componen y arrojan libros de sí como si fuesen buñuelos

—No hay libro tan malo —dijo el bachiller—, que no tenga algo bueno.

—No hay duda en eso —replicó don Quijote—, pero muchas veces acontece que los que tenían méritamente granjeada y alcanzada gran fama por sus escritos, en dándolos a la estampa la perdieron del todo o la menoscabaron en algo.

And again in chapter 59 of the part II:

"As you live, Senor Don Jeronimo, while they are bringing supper, let us read another chapter of the Second Part of 'Don Quixote of La Mancha.'"
The instant Don Quixote heard his own name be started to his feet and listened with open ears to catch what they said about him, and heard the Don Jeronimo who had been addressed say in reply,
"Why would you have us read that absurd stuff, Don Juan, when it is impossible for anyone who has read the First Part of the history of 'Don Quixote of La Mancha' to take any pleasure in reading this Second Part?"
"For all that," said he who was addressed as Don Juan, "we shall do well to read it, for there is no book so bad but it has something good in it. What displeases me most in it is that it represents Don Quixote as now cured of his love for Dulcinea del Toboso."
On hearing this Don Quixote, full of wrath and indignation, lifted up his voice and said,
"Whoever he may be who says that Don Quixote of La Mancha has forgotten or can forget Dulcinea del Toboso, I will teach him with equal arms that what he says is very far from the truth; for neither can the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso be forgotten, nor can forgetfulness have a place in Don Quixote; his motto is constancy, and his profession to maintain the same with his life and never wrong it.
" (Translated by John Ormsby)

—Por vida de vuestra merced, señor don Jerónimo, que en tanto que traen la cena leamos otro capítulo de la segunda parte de Don Quijote de la Mancha.

Apenas oyó su nombre don Quijote, cuando se puso en pie y con oído alerto escuchó lo que dél trataban y oyó que el tal don Jerónimo referido respondió:

—¿Para qué quiere vuestra merced, señor don Juan, que leamos estos disparates, si el que hubiere leído la primera parte de la historia de don Quijote de la Mancha no es posible que pueda tener gusto en leer esta segunda?

—Con todo eso —dijo el don Juan—, será bien leerla, pues no hay libro tan malo, que no tenga alguna cosa buena. Lo que a mí en este más desplace es que pinta a don Quijote ya desenamorado de Dulcinea del Toboso

Oyendo lo cual don Quijote, lleno de ira y de despecho alzó la voz y dijo:

—Quienquiera que dijere que don Quijote de la Mancha ha olvidado ni puede olvidar a Dulcinea del Toboso, yo le haré entender con armas iguales que va muy lejos de la verdad; porque la sin par Dulcinea del Toboso ni puede ser olvidada, ni en don Quijote puede caber olvido: su blasón es la firmeza, y su profesión, el guardarla con suavidad y sin hacerse fuerza alguna.

Modern examples are endless. Serve as a sign of international use quotation made by the famous historian Edward Gibbon Emily (1737-1794), author of the great work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon says in his Memoirs of My Life and writings:

…and that I soon adopted the tolerating maxim of the elder Pliny, “nullum esse librum tam malum ut no ex aliqua parte  prodesset”.
   
Oscar Wilde, modified the sentence, but giving it a moral sense shifting the possible evil of moral content to the reader, in the Preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray".:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The phrase has always generated thoughts I faced: on the one hand a certain appeal, almost fetishistic, by the book, the printing prevents me despise and more destroy any text; on the other hand I meet that there are many truly despicable,  essentially bad books. I find  history books absolutely false and lacking in rigor, I find publicized bestsellers  worthy of all rejection, I find  books (and I do not mean sexual content) which are morally negative. Sympathetically I remember an old column of an old humor magazine in the hard years of the Spanish dictatorship, “La Codorniz” (the Quail); in it there was a section called "Paper Jail"  in which the authors and especially crazy or false writings or bad solemnity, were detained. The truth is that much of the printed letter  in book form if not deserve the death penalty, against which I manifest contrary, deserves  a life sentence in this "paper prison of course ."

The same Pliny says on Epistulae, 7,9,16:

You often need to read a book, not many books

Multum legendum esse,  non multa

   
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