Habent sua fata libelli

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The Latin expression Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli (literally, "According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny"), is verse 1286 of De litteris, De syllabis, De Metris by Terentianus Maurus. Libelli is the plural of the Latin word libellus, which is a diminutive of liber ("book"), suggesting the qualification ("little books ...") was actually meant but in fact libellus was used to mean tracts, pamphlets etc.

William Camden used the phrase in the preface to Britannia (1607), the first chorographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The phrase is translated as "Bookes receive their Doome according to the reader's capacity."[1]

The early modern scholar Robert Burton deploys the expression in his The Anatomy of Melancholy:

Our writings are as so many dishes, our readers guests, our books like beauty, that which one admires another rejects; so are we approved as men's fancies are inclined. Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.[2]

The Latin is often only partially quoted as Habent sua fata libelli and then translated or understood as "Books have their own destinies." By extension the phrase is understood by Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose) as "Books share their fates with their readers". In a talk about book collecting, titled "Unpacking My Library" from Illuminations, Walter Benjamin cites the expression in its short form, noting that the words are often intended as a general statement about books; Benjamin's book collector, by way of contrast, applies them to himself and to the specific copies he collects.[3] It is quoted by James Joyce in a letter, dated April 2, 1932, to American publisher Bennett Cerf, a letter requested by Cerf concerning the details of the publication of Joyce's novel Ulysses.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Camden, William (1607). "Britannia". The Philological Museum. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  2. ^ Burton, Robert (1621). The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up.
  3. ^ Benjamin, Walter (1968). Illuminations. New York: Shocken Books. p. 61. ISBN 0-8052-0241-2.