I love this quote from George R.R. Martin — 'A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.'

I just learned today of a similar formulation from St. Augustine - 'The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page'

After many google searches I've been unable to find a quote that more closely matches Martin's but predates it. Confirmation that Martin originated this form would make me equally happy as learning of another earlier phrasing of the quote.

I should make it clear that I am interested in similar meaning as well as similar phrasing. I find that the frequently mentioned quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is almost opposite in meaning: 'Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.'


6 Answers 6


The earlier formulation was by William Shakespeare in the play Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.

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    That is a facile comparison made online many times that just doesn't fit, and is almost opposite in meaning. The St. Augustine quote is far more similar, and and predates Shakespeare. The reason the quotes don't match is that the valiant are to be praised in the Shakespeare quote, while the non reader is certainly not praised in the Martin quote. Mar 23, 2016 at 20:11
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    So you are asking not so much about the formula "An X lives/dies 1000 times, a Y just once" but rather "Books/reading multiply a persons experience N times." If so, please edit your question to specify this, and I will voluntarily delete this answer.
    – cobaltduck
    Mar 23, 2016 at 20:16
  • Please don't delete this answer. I should have been clear that I wanted similar meaning and intent with a similar formulation, not just similar formulation. I will edit my question, but please keep your answer for now. Mar 23, 2016 at 20:20
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    The Martin quote is obviously based on the Shakespeare one, so it's hardly a facile comparison. If the meanings are close to opposite, that would reflect a poor adaptation on Martin's part, if anything. It's not the first time Shakespeare's words have been repurposed, though ("Wherefore art thou Romeo" and "More honoured in the breach than in the observance" are commonly used with different meanings from in the original).
    – herisson
    Mar 23, 2016 at 20:27
  • thanks @cobaltduck for the suggestion to clarify my question to ask for similar meaning and phrasing, not just phrasing. Mar 23, 2016 at 20:29

Supposedly, somewhere in "A Farewell to Arms", Hemingway wrote:

"The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one?"

"Of course. Who said it?"

"I don't know."

"He was probably a coward," she said. "He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave. The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he's intelligent. He simply doesn't mention them.”

Expressions of the form "the coward dies a thousand deaths, while the valiant never die but once" go back to 1826, at least, and, as can be seen with the Hemingway quote, the line was subject to being rewritten in numerous ways. There's little doubt that the original source quote was either Shakespeare's line or one from an even earlier author (that Shakespeare likely copped), and the line has been quoted and requoted over the centuries.

There's also little reason to doubt that Martin might have simply stolen this popular meme and modified it to suit his needs. Other folks are welcome to employ their Google-fu to see if they can find an earlier version of the Martin quote, but I find nothing.

  • Thanks for your candor and your additional research @hot-licks ! Hemingway certainly moves the needle in the right direction towards Martin's quote. I just wish the meaning were a little closer still. Mar 25, 2016 at 0:09
  • Also, you led me down a fruitful path for my own additional research! Mar 25, 2016 at 0:15

I've traced the trope to a 2008 interview of Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa on El Clarín, a recognized Buenos Aires newspaper:

"Los humanos tienen esa curiosa condición de poseer una sola vida, pero al mismo tiempo estar dotados de esa imaginación y esos deseos que los hacen anhelar mil vidas".

My translation is "Humans have a curious condition that makes them hold only one life, while at the same time they are given imagination and desire enough to long for a thousand lives". And Vargas Llosa goes on:

"Mil vidas, una experiencia más rica e intensa de lo que viven en realidad. Y sienten ese gran vacío entre la realidad y el sueño, el deseo. Ese vacío lo llenan las ficciones y la novela es la forma suprema de ellas".

My translation is "A thousand lives, a far richer and intense experience than their real life. And they feel that void between reality and dream: desire. That void is filled by fiction, and the novel is its supreme form."

Since A Dance with Dragons was published in 2011, we could safely assume that Vargas Llosa's quote was at least one of the original sources. My personal conclusion is that there are no originals, only infinite variations. From Vargas Llosa, it should be possible to trace this back to St. Augustine again.


“The person who doesn’t read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards.”

― Umberto Eco

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    Welcome to the site, @Will. This is a good answer, but it's the practice here to cite sources. If you do that your answer will be better received. Thanks!
    – Robusto
    Nov 18, 2020 at 0:58
  • I can't find an exact source or date for this and it has many variations in English, so I'm guessing the original would be in Italian. I like this one a lot, and I hope it predates Martin's Mar 18, 2022 at 18:29

Thanks to @hot-licks, a few searches in google books turned up variants much closer in meaning:

In 2005, Marcus Omer wrote - 'A dreamer lives a thousand lives, a hero lives but one.'

This quote is in fact a bridge between the Shakespeare's and Martin's.

Willard Waller wrote - 'when a thousand men live together, then each man lives a thousand lives.'

This one gets to the notion of enriched experience of community, in the same way that St. Augustine touches on breadth of experience through travel.

I'm not yet ready to accept this as a final answer, so please keep them coming.


This isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, but what about Emily Dickinson’s poem? Certainly the meaning is similar to Martin’s statement.

There is no Frigate like a Book (1286)
by Emily Dickinson

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 –

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