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The UK’s Royal Mint announced in January 2021 a commemorative £2 coin “Celebrating the Life and Work of H. G. Wells”. The coin design (depicted below) suggests that no-one involved in the project had much in the way of expertise on Wells. As Alison Flood writes in The Guardian:

Observant fans of H. G. Wells have questioned how a new coin from the Royal Mint commemorating The War of the Worlds author could be released with multiple errors, including giving his “monstrous tripod” four legs. […] Science fiction novelist and professor of 19th-century literature Adam Roberts, who is author of a biography of Wells and vice president of the H. G. Wells Society, also criticised the depiction of the Invisible Man, shown in a top hat; in the book he arrives at Iping under a “wide-brimmed hat”.

Flood also reports on Twitter:

Just heard back from the press office at the Royal Mint. The inscription on the edge of the coin is indeed “GOOD BOOKS ARE THE WAREHOUSES OF IDEAS”. I shall ask where they got it from!

Where does the quotation “Good books are the warehouses of ideas” come from and how did become associated with H. G. Wells?

Obverse of £2 coin, depicting: a Martian vehicle resembling a table lamp with a tentacle, supported on four spindly legs; an invisible man, wearing a bow tie and a top hat; Roman numerals from IX to III around the top half of the rim; and "2021 H. G. WELLS" around the bottom half. The design is signed “CTC” for “Chris Costello”

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TL;DR: It’s a typographical error: for “ideas” read “ideals”!

“Ideals!” said my uncle; “certainly Ideals. Of course one must have ideals, else life would be bare materialism. Bare fact alone, naked necessity, is impossible barren rock for a soul to root upon. Life, indeed, is an unfurnished house, an empty glass in a thirsty land good and necessary for foundation, but insufficient for any satisfaction unless we have ideals. Or, again, ideals are the flesh upon the skeleton of reality, and it cannot live without them.

“It always appears to me,” said my uncle, "that the comparison of ideals to furniture is particularly appropriate. They are the draperies of the mind, and they hide the nakedness of truth. Your fireplace is ugly, your mere necessary shelves and seats but planks and crudity, all your surroundings so much office furniture, until the skilful hand and the draperies come in. Then a few cunning loopings and foldings, and behold softness and delicacy, crudity gone, and life well worth the living. So that you cannot value ideals too highly.

“Yet at the same time—” My uncle became meditative.

“I would not have a man the slave of his ideals. Hangings make the room comfortable, but, after all, hangings are hangings. Perhaps, now and then of course, I would not suggest continual inconstancy a slight change, a little rearrangement, even a partial replacement, might brighten up the dear old dwelling-place. An ideal may be clung to too fondly. When the moth gets into it, or the dust did not Carlyle warn us against this, lest they ‘accumulate and at last produce suffocation’? I am exactly at one with him there.

“And that, as any Cabinet Minister explains every time he opens a public library, is why we have literature. Good books are the warehouses of ideals. Does it strike you your furniture is sombre, a bit Calvinistic and severe try a statuette by Pope, or a classical piece out of Heine. Too much white and gold for every-day purposes then the Reverend Laurence Sterne will oblige. Urban tone may be corrected by Hardy, and Lowell will give you urbanity. And, however well you match and balance them, remember there is a time for ideals, and a time when they are better out of the way.

H. G. Wells (1895). ‘The Use of Ideals’. In Select Conversations with an Uncle (Now Extinct) and Two Other Reminiscences, pp. 18–19. London: John Lane.

This reference was spotted by Eleanor Fitzsimons on Twitter. I’ve quoted so much of the context to demonstrate that the context is satirical—when the narrator’s uncle says that “good books are the warehouses of ideals” he means that you can leave the ideals in the books and not have to think about them, until the time comes when it might be expedient or convenient to get them out.

This is a terrible quotation to use when you are intending to commemorate a writer: it says that the writer’s ideals can safely be ignored and forgotten, in the warehouse of his books, until the day when you might take them out and use them for background decoration, like a wall-hanging. But perhaps the choice is in keeping with the four-legged tripods.

Who turned “ideals” into “ideas”? The earliest instance I was able to find is from 1999:

Good books are the warehouses of ideas. — H. G. Wells (1866–1946)

Ben Jacobs and Helena Hjalmarsson (1999). The Quotable Book Lover, p. 4. New York: Lyons Press.

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  • For the warehouse in the analogy, think of the final scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (where you hide things away), not the warehouse that supplies a department store (which they're regularly taking things from).
    – Barmar
    Jan 7 at 16:06
  • But it's also easy to understand how someone who hadn't read the full context could misconstrue the quote (with or without the mistake).
    – Barmar
    Jan 7 at 16:08
  • 5
    "...he means that you can leave the ideals in the books and not have to think about them, until the time comes when it might be expedient or convenient to get them out." Such as the British government conveniently getting out this particular quotation, completely out of context, to be used "for background decoration" on a £2 coin!
    – otah007
    Jan 7 at 21:05
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War of the words: HG Wells coin also features false quote The new coin is inscribed: ‘Good books are warehouses of ideas’ – but digging reveals the quote to be both wrong and expressing a different sentiment

Source : The Guardian

It looks like the Royal mint might have messed up somewhat in choosing an applicable quote !

Author Eleanor Fitzsimons solved the mystery. She tried searching Wells’s writing for a quote with “warehouses” in it, and found an approximation in his obscure work Select Conversations With an Uncle (Now Extinct) and Two Other Reminiscences. That quote, however, is not what appears on the coin: it reads, “Good books are the warehouses of ideals.”

Unfortunately for the Royal Mint, not only is the Wells quotation inaccurate, the actual sentiments expressed are likely to be far from what the author intended. The words are spoken by a character who believes that ideals should be hidden away in books, and goes on to say that “there is a time for ideals, and a time when they are better out of the way”.

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  • 1
    This appears to say the same thing as the highly upvoted, accepted answer - except that it only quotes other sources about the true meaning of the quote, whereas the other answer has the quote in full context and analyzes it.
    – bobble
    Jan 10 at 19:01

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