The dangers of reading Fiction

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Blog post by Angela Platt, Librarian, Ibstock Place School

The term ‘reading for pleasure’ most widely refers to voluntary reading conducted independently.  According to the National Literacy Trust, it is summed as “reading that we do of our own free will, anticipating the satisfaction that we will get from the act of reading. It also refers to reading that, having begun at someone else’s request, we continue because we are interested in it”. Reading in this category most frequently refers to novels and stories which encourage empathy, creativity and vocabulary. It should be noted that reading for pleasure should not omit voluntary, independent reading of non-fiction, which can improve skills and instruct readers on subjects in which they are specifically interested outside of the classroom setting. However, as mentioned, this is most typically associated with the reading of fiction.

The early dangers of reading-for-pleasure

Although there are swathes of information regarding the benefits of reading fiction in our current day-and-age, especially via public and school libraries, this was not always the case! Indeed, when the novel took off in the late 18th – early 19th century, it was abhorred considerably by numerous members of the public. This was especially the case amongst proponents of evangelicalism, which was widespread in this era. They themselves did publish their own novels, but these were offered as a moral alternative to secular fiction – a religious counterpart which offered tangible moral imperatives interwoven within their text. This included works such as Hannah More’s Coelebs, a story about a young man who seeks a devout Christian wife after the death of his father.

Opposition to this type of secular leisurely entertainment was not unusual; indeed, Puritans in the 17th century had condemned theatre-going amongst their congregations, due to their beliefs in its invitation to and promotion of immoral behavior. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, novel reading was also opposed on moral grounds. Said one contributor to the Dundee Evening Telegraph in the late Victorian age:

“In the days of my youth, fiction was regarded a very dangerous reading, especially for young people. The novel and the theatre were placed on the same level. Both were of the devil, and consequently both were to be shunned.”

It was believed that novels promoted immoral behaviour. They portrayed immoral behavior in an attractive light, and caused readers to fall prey to their repugnant grip. Furthermore, novels tended to portray unrealistic versions of life, which could at the very least leave readers feeling discontented with their current lot in life. In 1864 a Dundee newspaper published a comment from the Archbishop of York which demonstrates the widespread disgust with this ‘vice’:

“[Novel reading] cascades people into useless outcomes, obsesses them with unnecessary passions, while providing a distorted view of life”

Additionally, novel reading was also believed to be frivolous and time-wasting. It was believed that women especially tended to fall prey to its clutches, and this resulted in the neglect of their domestic responsibilities. Numerous stories of domestic despair can be found which allude to a root cause of ‘novel reading.’ (some of which can be found here). Indeed, at a meeting in the Phoenix Lodge in the early 20th century a group of members decided that one of the greatest contributing causes to disruption and dissolution of families was ‘novel reading among women.’

Novels, as demonstrated, were considered ‘dangerous’ by a significant amount of 18th and 19th century contemporaries, and these suspicions continued until well into the 20th century. While now novel reading is considered part and parcel of overall well-being, it was not so in its initial phase. What about today though, is novel reading still considered a ‘danger’ in some sects of society?

Novel reading in our age

One blog, in a tongue and cheek manner, lists a number of dangers which reading for pleasure can elicit. Here are four of the given reasons:

1.      Books are filled with razor-sharp paper that can easily cut you.

2.      Reading can fill your mind with dangerous ideas. At least, some governments and organisations think so.

3.      Becoming engrossed in a book may distract you from feeding yourself, leading you to starve to death.

4.      Reading books helps keep librarians employed, a secretive group that may or may not be trying to dominate the world…

Although humorous, these claims do bear some remnants of truth. The third point recalls the fears in the 18th and 19th century that novels cause idleness. The most salient point, however, for ourselves may be the second point – which recalls to our minds instances where particular books have been censored or ‘banned’ from particular institutions or countries due to political and/or religious objections. Indeed ‘banned books’ have been a frequent cause for consternation in bookstores and libraries for decades; a number of publications which received this label can be found here.

Banning books is a demonstrable effect of the belief that books, or at least some books can be considered dangerous. Undoubtedly, this is a trickle-effect of the beliefs held by our Georgian and Victorian ancestors. Indeed, there are two reasons for which reading novels, even contentious ones, can be dangerous in a beneficial way:

1.      They inspire empathy

2.      They challenge us to think differently.

Reading for pleasure can indeed be ‘dangerous’ since it challenges us to consider new perspectives, perhaps even ones which we have not previously encountered. Given our diverse and global world, these can be especially helpful in developing a well-rounded character in social and professional environments. However, just for the sake of clarity,  I feel I should indicate what promoting ‘dangerous’ reading does not indicate:

1.      It does not equal agreeing with everything you read.

2.      It does not mean you must change your religion, political views, or ideologies to reach congruence with what you have read.

What ‘dangerous’ reading does indicate is the possibility of greater understanding of diversity. In our day and age, this is a salient issue. In truth, we have so much information bogging us down that many people have begun to ultimately form opinions with emotions rather than weighing of evidence. This is not a political piece which argues for/against this trend – undoubtedly there is a place for both emotions and rationalism. However, if post-modernism has taught us anything in this ‘biased’ world we must concede that it is probably impossible to separate our emotions from our rationalism – and reading novels aids us in this. It allows us to understand how people in other cultures and communities view the world. It also allows us to understand why people within our own larger communities might approach the same problems and issues in a vastly different manner.

Select bibliography and further reading:

Clark, C. and Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure a research overview. [online] Available at: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk.

Banned Books. Available at www.banned-books.org.uk

The dangers of novel-reading. (2017). The Beeton Ideal. Available at: www.thebeetonideal.wordpress.com

Dangers of Reading Books. (2011). Your Guide to Live. Available at: http://www.yourguidetolive.com/article.php?a=dangersofreading

Mandal, A. (2015). Evangelical Fiction in Garside, P. and O’Brien, K. English and British Fiction 1750-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 260.

Pearson, J. (1999). Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: a dangerous recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 197.

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