The dangers of reading

I meet many people who bemoan their children not reading. One of our son’s teachers told us that what distinguishes the boys who do well is that they read a lot. Parents struggle to pull their children away from videos, games, and computers to get them to read a book. But many from the past would be amazed by such folly–because they knew that nothing can be more dangerous than reading.

The consequences of reading, argued the philosopher Johann Adam Bergk in 1799, are “senseless extravagance, insurmountable reluctance to undertake any effort, boundless love of luxury, suppression of the voice of conscience, becoming tired of life, and an early death. “The lack of all physical movement while reading, combined with the forcible alternation of imagination and emotion,” said the teacher Karl G Bauer in 1791, leads to “slackness, mucous congestion, flatulence, and constipation of the inner organs, which, as is well known, particularly in the female sex, actually affects the sexual parts.”

Reading is particularly dangerous for the poor and women.  “Reading, writing and arithmetic are… very pernicious to the poor’, argued the Dutch-born satirist Bernard Mandeville. The seventeenth-century poet Alessandro Tassoni cautioned on the particular dangers of women reading: “There is no doubt, but that study is an occasion of exciting lust, and of giving rise to many obscene actions…” “The woman who reads,” warns the German writer Stefan Bollman, “acquires a space to which she and nobody else has access, and together with this she develops an independent sense of self-esteem; furthermore, she creates her own view of the world that does not necessarily correspond with that conveyed by tradition, or with that of men.”

Women are more inclined than men to read novels and romances, and novels, warned Thomas Beddoes, and 18th century physician from  Bristol, are “the most injurious, “ while romances “increase indolence, the imaginary world indisposing those who inhabit it in thought to go abroad into the real.”

I’ve been reminded of the dangers of reading ironically by reading Women Who Read Are Dangerous, but I know about them because 20 years ago I attended a brilliant lecture by the historian Roy Porter in which he argued that reading causes “bad eyesight, poor posture, incomprehensible babblings, addled wits, and depravity.” Luckily his lecture is available online at and he assembles a formidable case for how reading will harm you.

“Students,” warned Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, are commonly troubled with “gouts, catarrhs, rheums, wasting, indigestion, bad eyes, stone, and colick, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting.”  Bookishness, Porter reminds us, was recognised as addictive, and psychopathological, as the Manchester physician John Ferriar versified in his Bibliomania:

What wild desires, what restless torments seize

The hapless man, who feels the book-disease,

Don Quixote is perhaps the most famous victim of reading, and Cervantes tells us that  “he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.”

Porter quotes Lothair, a character in a novel by the British author and prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, as saying:  “Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race… The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.”


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