If this book is boring, two years from now it will be wrapping butter at the grocer’s

From Stendhal’s Souvenirs d’egotisme (Memoirs of an Egotist in an English translation):

Si ce livre est ennuyeux, au bout de deux ans il enveloppera le beurre chez l’épicier ….

If this book is boring, two years from now it will be wrapping butter at the grocer’s ….

I would like a history of all such phrases – bad books as food wrappings. I know of three in Latin literature and a near parallel in English but I’m sure I’ve read others without retaining them:

Catullus XCV.9:

But the Annals of Volusius will die by the river Padua where they were born, and will often furnish a loose wrapper for mackerels.

at Volusi annales Paduam morientur ad ipsamet laxas scombris saepe dabunt tunicas

Horace Epistles 2.1.265-70

Not for me attentions that are burdensome, and I want neither to be displayed anywhere in wax, with my features misshaped, nor to be praised in verses ill-wrought, lest I have to blush at the stupid gift, and then, along with my poet, outstretched in a closed chest, be carried into the street where they sell frankincense and perfumes and pepper and everything else that is wrapped in sheets of useless paper.

nil moror officium quod me gravat, ac neque ficto in peius voltu proponi cereus usquamnec prave factis decorari versibus opto,ne rubeam pingui donatus munere, et unacum scriptore meo, capsa porrectus operta, deferar in vicum vendentem tus et odores et piper et quidquid chartis amicitur ineptis

Persius 1.40-45

 Is there anyone who would disown the desire to earn the praise of the people?—or, when he’s produced compositions good enough for cedar oil, to leave behind him poetry which has nothing to fear from mackerels or incense?

an erit qui velle recusetos populi meruisse et cedro digna locutuslinquere nec scombros metuentia carmina nec tus?

And – in a different vein – Lyly’s Euphues (To the Gentleman readers):

We commonly see the book that at Christmas lieth bound on the stationer’s stall at Easter to be broken in the haberdasher’s shop

I rub on privus privatus

From Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy

….amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves; I rub on privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, statu quo prius, left to a solitary life, and mine own domestic discontents: saving that sometimes, ne quid mentiar, as Diogenes went into the city, and Democritus to the haven to see fashions, I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation, non tam sagax observator ac simplex recitator, not as they did, to scoff or laugh at all, but with a mixed passion.

Bilem saepe, jocum vestri movere tumultus.
Ye wretched mimics, whose fond heats have been,
How oft! the objects of my mirth and spleen.

I did sometime laugh and scoff with Lucian, and satirically tax with Menippus, lament with Heraclitus, sometimes again I was petulanti splene cachinno, and then again, urere bilis jecur, I was much moved to see that abuse which I could not mend.

Bilem saepe … – Horace Epistles 1.20.  Burton flowers it a bit.

Petulanti splene cachinno – Persius Satires 1.12.  The grammar of the quote doesn’t fold into the grammar of the context.  I give the context at greater length because it better connects with Burton’s application than the other quotes.

nam Romae quis non—a, si fas dicere—sed fas
tum cum ad canitiem et nostrum istud vivere triste
aspexi ac nucibus facimus quaecumque relictis,
cum sapimus patruos. tunc tunc—ignoscite (nolo,
quid faciam?) sed sum petulanti splene—cachinno.

Is there anyone at Rome who doesn’t  —oh, if only I could say it—but I may, when I look at our grey heads and that gloomy life of ours and everything we’ve been doing since we gave up our toys, since we started sounding like strict uncles. Then, then—excuse me (I don’t want to, I can’t help it), but I’ve got a cheeky temper—I cackle.

urere bilis iecur – a slight misquote of Horace Satires 1.9.65 – meum iecur urere bilis – ‘my liver burns with bile’

All more useful to me than a philosopher

Fragments 507-508 of Lucilius in the Loeb edition, with Shadi Bartsch’s translation from the introduction to her Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural.  

Paenula, si quaeris, cantherius, servus, segestre utilior mihi quam sapiens

If you’re asking: a cloak, an old nag, a slave, a wrapper are all more useful to me than a philosopher

It also now reads like a position description discouraging anyone tainted by the humanities from applying.

It’s as a half-caste that I bring my song to the bards’ rites

Below is the prologue to Persius’ Satires in Susanna Morton Braund’s Loeb edition.

I neither cleansed my lips in the nag’s spring nor recall dreaming on twin-peaked Parnassus so as to emerge an instant poet. The Heliconians and pale Pirene I leave to people with their statues licked by clinging ivy. It’s as a half-caste that I bring my song to the bards’ rites. Who equipped the parrot with his “Hello” and taught the magpie to attempt human speech? It was that master of expertise, that bestower of talent, the belly—an expert at copying sounds denied by nature. Just let the prospect of deceitful money gleam and you’d think raven poets and poetess magpies were chanting the nectar of Pegasus.

Nec fonte labra prolui caballino
nec in bicipiti somniasse Parnaso
memini, ut repente sic poeta prodirem.
Heliconidasque pallidamque Pirenen
illis remitto quorum imagines lambunt
hederae sequaces; ipse semipaganus
ad sacra vatum carmen adfero nostrum.
quis expedivit psittaco suum “chaere”
picamque docuit nostra verba conari?
magister artis ingenique largitor
venter, negatas artifex sequi voces.
quod si dolosi spes refulserit nummi,
corvos poetas et poetridas picas
cantare credas Pegaseium nectar.

Her translations of Juvenal and especially Persius – who is forever less attended to – are far my favorites now.  Generally when she departs from the Latin it’s for a punch that strict conformity can’t get across – e.g. here ‘nag’s spring’ for fonte caballino where caballinus is really a neutral adjective ‘pertaining to a horse’, ‘an instant poet’ for repente poeta where the adverbial repente truly does better as adjective – but I very much dislike ‘half-caste’ for semipaganus.  Lewis and Short give it ‘half-rustic, half a clown’ based off the varying senses of the root element paganus


‘Half-caste’ sounds to me too much a British empire insult and too much privileges the connotation of semi over that of paganus – which, without rousing all the dull dribblings of the ‘persona of the satirist’ arguments, still seems very much at the heart of the scene with its clear references to Hesiod (including ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, ‘field-dwelling shepherds’, Theogony 26) and (as becomes apparent in the ensuring satires) the author’s distaste for the culture of his urban surroundings.  I prefer an Americanized ‘half a hillbilly’.