Of all the quotes I record in my little booklet of quotations, those by Victor Hugo are often the most thought-provoking. He has such a way of writing that begs a moment of attention. One such quote that I have seen attributed to Victor Hugo is this: “When a person opens a book, he can never be in prison.”
It is one of those quotations which drives me batty, for though nearly everyone on the internet has quoted it in some fashion or another, no one has cited the source. I suspect it may be from Les Misérables—perhaps mutilated over time by the misquotations of various heedless individuals. However, I have no intention of lugging that epic tome1 up from the library to search for a needle in a haystack, if indeed it is in Les Misérables at all. No, not even for you, my friends, not even for this little blog of mine. Perhaps someday, when I reread Les Misérables I shall keep watch for it, but that someday is not today.
Victor Hugo often writes figuratively, and one unique aspect of his metaphors is that he rarely explains them—leaving their meaning to the discretion of the reader. This particular quote which I introduced above (rightly or wrongly attributed to Victor Hugo), is an example of this kind. It speaks of the power literature has to whisk the imagination into distant lands, without requiring the body to move physically.
Consider this: Suppose a man was in prison. And suppose he was fortunate enough to be allowed reading material of the fictional kind—say, Around the World in Eighty Days. In reading this book, the prisoner is not physically in any place but his cell. But his mind is elsewhere: in his native London, perhaps, or even so far from home as in Bombay, or Hong Kong.
In this quote, Hugo (if it is Hugo) does not mean “When a person opens a book, his body can never be in prison.” No, “When a person opens a book, his mind can never be in prison.” However, the mind is so connected with physical perception that, where the mind is, the body is either forgotten or thought to be in the same place.
This is the power of literature, as many or all of my readers are familiar. With the best of authors we are free to wander, regardless of our physical position. We can travel back in time, into the future, and into times that never were and never will be. We can tread paths on this earth which we will never see in waking life. Emily Dickenson speaks so rightly when she says,
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul—
How frugal indeed. Writers, imaginations are at our disposal. Let us be ever so careful that we lead them on paths of Light.
Now over to you, my friends. I know some of you have read Les Misérables—any notion whence this mysterious quote originates?
1I use “epic tome” in its most literal sense.
2 thoughts on ““When a person opens a book, he can never be in prison.””
That’s one of my favorite Emily Dickenson poems!
It is one of my favourite Emily Dickenson poems too! It is so true: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us lands away.”
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