We’re not the first generation to invest reading with miraculous powers. But until radio and television dethroned the book, social reformers worried about too much reading, not too little. Advice about when and where not to read was once a medical specialty. In an 1806 diagnosis, a British doctor hypothesized that the “excess of stimulus” produced by reading novels “affects the organs of the body and relaxes the tone of the nerves.” Reading at the table interfered with your digestion, reading before lunch with your morals. Another expert, in 1867, warned that “to read when in bed ... is to injure your eyes, your brain, your nervous system, your intellect.” Cue to the other in-bed activity that makes you go blind. Like masturbation, reading was too pleasurable for its own good; like masturbation, it threatened to upstage real human contact (messy, tedious, disappointing) with virtual pleasures.
In 18th-century paintings, the reader sprawls on a sofa or lolls at the hairdresser’s; in 19th-century magazines, those characters shown reading are the least likely to engage in any exercise more strenuous than turning a page. One English journalist in 1874 worried that frequent readers “are defrauded out of their proper amount of exercise, get their muscles relaxed and their health out of gear.” In 1835, Balzac addressed his reader as “you who are holding this book in your fair hand, you who sink down in your soft easy chair.” Reading drove Madame Bovary to adultery, debt and rat poison.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
In the NYTBR, Leah Price considers the NEA's doomsdayish report on American readerly habits: