Einstein’s Folklore

Einsteinblog

Albert Einstein, photographed by Orren Jack Turner in about 1947.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-60242 (b&w film copy neg.)

Albert Einstein, the physicist behind the Theory of General Relativity and other crucial theoretical advances of the 20th century, is often considered one of the greatest scientists of all time.  But did you know that he also liked folklore?

At least, he did according to some commentators.  A direct quotation, often attributed to Einstein, runs:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

You can find this item all over the internet, on blogs, tumblrs, quotation sites, and those captioned images that have come to be known as “memes.”  Sometimes it’s a bare quotation, other times it’s embellished with physical details of the gestures Einstein made or what he looked like at the time.

Because of the quotation’s popularity, and because of its association with folklore, members of the AFC staff have been asked more than once about whether Einstein really said this.  Our analysis suggests that the story is itself folklore.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue; Einstein may well have said this, or at least something similar to this.  But it does mean that the story circulated for many years, probably orally as well as in print, and then came to be passed around on the Internet, from the early days of Usenet to the current environment of Facebook and other social networks.  As a result of this oral, print, and electronic transmission, the story of Einstein advocating fairy tales resembles other folk stories: it exists in multiple versions that vary in their details.  And, interestingly for those who love both folklore and libraries, the story initially appears to have circulated primarily among librarians.

Versions of the story go back to January 1958, when Elizabeth Margulis wrote an article called “Fairy Tales and More Fairy Tales” in the New Mexico Library Bulletin.  She quotes the story thus:

In Denver I heard a story about a woman who was friendly with the late Dr. Einstein, surely acknowledged as an outstanding ‘pure’ scientist. She wanted her child to become a scientist, too, and asked Dr. Einstein for his suggestions for the kind of reading the child might do in his school years to prepare him for this career. To her surprise Dr. Einstein recommended ‘fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested this frivolity and asked for a serious answer, but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus of this quality! (p.3)

Fairy Tales

Photograph of the painting Fairy Tales, by James Jebusa Shannon. Photo by the Detroit Publishing Co. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Call Number LC-D415-90333

In this version, we see the beginnings of the Einstein quotation; it features the phrases “fairy tales” and “more fairy tales,” just like our famous version.  But it differs as well: Einstein is not talking about intelligence generally, but about how to prepare for a career in science.

This story also has a feature that folklorists have identified as a common characteristic of folk legends: the person to whom the story happened is at two removes from the current narrator.  Margulis did not know the woman Einstein spoke to, she heard about that woman from another intermediary.  The occupational folklore of folklorists includes an acronym for this phenomenon, FOAF, which stands for “Friend Of A Friend;” when legends are told, it is often as something that happened to a FOAF. Folklorists sometimes even refer to legends themselves as “foaftales.”

Despite its legend-like appearance, the tale was considered noteworthy right away among children’s librarians, and was quoted by Rita McDonald in her article “Children’s Reading in the Space Age,” in Montana Libraries, in July 1958:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

Einsteincitizen

Einstein receiving his certificate of American citizenship from Judge Phillip Forman on October 1, 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-05649.

These two versions are frequently cited on the Internet with early dates such as 1954 or 1953, probably due to the indexing practices of Google Books, which lead to an apparent date of 1953 for the first quotation. However, taking advantage of my great fortune to work at the Library of Congress, I took a trip to the stacks of our own beloved Adams Building to ferret out original paper copies of these publications, and they definitely date to 1958!

Significant variation had occurred in the story by April 1963, when it again appeared in a library publication, the Wilson Library Bulletin.  This appearance of the Einstein story is frequently cited on the Internet as a brief, one-sentence quotation from Doris Gates (usually erroneously dated to 1962), but in its longer form it tells us much more about the story. On page 678, in an article about the value of folktales entitled “The Listening Heart,” children’s librarian Jane Buel Bradley notes:

Not only storytellers believe in the value of folktales.  Marie Shedlock tells of the great French mathematician Hermite, who said to the French Academy about the training of young people: “Develop the imagination.  Everything comes from that.  If you want mathematicians, give your children fairy tales.”  And Doris Gates, writer and children’s librarian, reports that Albert Einstein told an anxious mother who wanted to help her child become a scientist: “First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!” [1]

The story about Hermite bears more than a passing resemblance to the earlier versions of the Einstein story: not only does the authority figure suggest fairy tales as a way to develop minds in math or science, in each case he explains that it is imagination that will help a child in his mathematical or scientific career.  It is always possible that Einstein was quoting Hermite, who was famous while Einstein was being trained in science and mathematics, but the appearance of essentially the same story, told about a French mathematician and a German-born American scientist, strongly suggests another possibility: that this is what folklorists call a “migratory legend,” a story that moves from place to place and along the way becomes attached to various objects, locations, and people.

Since the 1960s, the story has spread further and new variants have been created.  In particular, folklorists, self-help writers, and parenting specialists have picked the story up to circulate it orally and in print, often in slightly altered form.  For example, on page 107 of their 2003 book Telling Tales, Gail de Vos, Merle Harris, and Celia Barker Lottridge quote another version: “If you want your children to be brilliant, tell them fairy tales. If you want them to be very brilliant, tell them even more fairy tales.” The same version of the quotation is included in  Learning Together with Children by Jeanette Kroese Thomson and in Chocolate for a Woman’s Heart by Kay Allenbaugh, among many other books. Note that in this version, common to parents and folklorists, the instructions are to TELL the child tales, not read them…which squares nicely with folklorists’ concern with oral transmission. It also promises that the children will become not only intelligent but “brilliant,” surely a motivating factor for parents.

We’ll give the final say on Einstein’s Folklore to the folklorist and literary scholar Jack Zipes, who transformed the quotation into a tiny fairy tale to open his 1979 book Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist. In particular she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.
‘Fairy Tales,’ Einstein responded without hesitation.
‘Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?’ the mother asked.
‘More fairy tales,’ Einstein stated.
‘And after that?’
‘Even more fairy tales,’ replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.

 

Notes

[1] Although Buel gives no citation for the quotation from Doris Gates, the story about Hermite is credited to pages 116-117 of Marie Shedlock’s book The Art of the Story-Teller.

 

Further Reading and Listening:

To hear oral versions of fairy tales, visit us at the American Folklife Center’s reading room

For further reading on Einstein, visit the Library’s reference guide The Annus Mirabilis of Albert Einstein.

For some wonderful versions of fairy tales, view the following books on Read.gov:

Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know

For more fairy tale blog posts visit our sister blogs:

From the Catbird Seat: A Grimm Beginning

The Signal: Snow Byte and the Seven Formats

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Pat Atkinson
    December 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    My father read us myths and fairy tales from all over the world, including stories from so-called “tribal cultures” as well as the more literary collections from major world civilizations and ancient civilizations. We were also immersed in hands-on science and natural history and in comparative religion. I believe I was programmed to be a folklorist from the cradle.

  2. Sara Cleto
    December 18, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    Fascinating post! Brittany and I actually have this quote on a canvas on our wall, and now I’ll be a bit better prepared when guests come over, see it, and say “but did Einstein REALLY say that?” (My response will be “Folklore suggests so!”)

  3. Edward B. Wilson
    October 26, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Fascinating, and a second chapter masthead in Das Nerdal with a quote attributed to but never given near as I can tell.

    The other is “It’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” O Hardy.

    Yours

    Ed Wilson

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