Reading Is Bad for Your Health

By Porter, Roy | History Today, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Reading Is Bad for Your Health


Porter, Roy, History Today


Roy Porter, in his Longman/History Today lecture, warns of the bad eyesight, poor posture, incomprehensible babblings, addled wits, depravity and worse that may befall those who immerse themselves too much in books.

`A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit', writes John Milton, proleptically puffing the Everyman series. Or listen to Doris Lessing on learning to read: `The delicious excitement of it all... the discoveries... the surprises... I was intoxicated a good part of the time'. Or Sue Townsend: `Reading became a secret obsession... I went nowhere without a book -- the lavatory, a bus journey, walking to school'.

The propaganda is endless. Ignore it! Caveat lector, I say -- and don't pretend you weren't warned, `Much learning doth make thee mad', cautions the Acts of the Apostles a long time back, while the Greeks well knew the dangers. Plato's Phaedrus, you will recall, recounts an Egyptian myth concerning the invention of writing. Thoth offers the gift of writing to King Thamus, claiming it will `make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories'. The real effect, counters Thamus, will be the opposite: writing `will implant forgetfulness in their souls [and] they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written'. Knowledge may thus wax, but wisdom will wane. Writing, moreover, is a deceiver; as the reading habit grows, love of the real atrophies.

And since Antiquity there have been countless cautions against the pride of the pen. Foolish beyond belief `are those who strive to win eternal fame by issuing books', declared Erasmus in the Praise of Folly:

... watch how pleased they are with

themselves when they are praised by

the ordinary reader, when someone points

them out in a crowd with `There is that

remarkable man', when they are advertised

in front of the booksellers' shops.

Such exposes accompanied post-Gutenberg misgivings about the perils of print. `How poor is the proficiency that is merely bookish!', declared Montaigne. The Moderns in the Battle of the Books proclaimed truth was to be found in Nature, through observation and experiment. So poring over books was pointless.

In short, an honourable dissenting tradition has fired off books against books, and such fusillades have been echoed by others of different ideological stripes, fearful of books sapping virtue and piety -- hence the setting up in 1559 of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The salutary idea that people are better off illiterate has had its political champions too. `Reading, writing and arithmetic are... very pernicious to the poor', argued the Dutch-born satirist Bernard Mandeville, since they would get uppity. Indeed, positively criminal, according to the nineteenth-century French psychiatrist, Lauvergue, who observed that `the most unreformable criminals are all educated'. His compatriot Hippolyte Taine similarly drew attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were the sole people in Europe among whom criminality was declining. Why was that? It was because the British education system was so bad.

If book-learning were dangerous in general, it was doubly so for the weaker vessel. The seventeenth-century poet, Alessandro Tassoni cautioned:

There is no doubt, but that study is an

occasion of exciting lust, and of giving rise

to many obscene actions... Hence, as I

suppose it is, that we find, in Euripides and

Juvenal; that the learned women of

antiquity were accused Of immodesty.

Of course, all such wholesome reasonings have now been hopelessly compromised by today's politically-correct nostrums of human rights, democracy and feminism. That is why it is so important for me to get across the true dangers: the medical ones. Reading is, quite literally, disastrous for your health. Now that T-bone steaks have been banned in Britain, I look to government action.

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