When waxing romantic about their favorite pastime, avid readers speak of being immersed or spellbound or transported, of going on a journey, of altogether losing themselves. When we decry that the Internet is killing our ability to really get into a book, we are expressing concern that such total involvement with words on a page is becoming increasingly difficult. For their part, scientists can’t shut up about the transformative benefits of literature: it increases empathy and bolsters our theory of mind and boosts connectivity in the brain. Literary scholars don’t bother reading the studies—they’re already sold.
But engaging emotionally with a book hasn’t always been so unreservedly embraced. About a century or so after the mechanical printing press took hold in England—at a time when access to reading material at long last extended beyond priests and nobles to hoi polloi on the streets—scholars were instead warning us against reading with abandon.
And with good reason! As historian Adrian Johns describes in The Nature of the Book, for one philosopher, a stint of reading extraordinary adventures “accustom’d his Thoughts to such a Habitude of Raving, that he has scarce ever been their quiet Master since.” Another scholar experienced more physical consequences: reading overheated his brain, rendering him blind.
To blame were the passions—“the emotional, physiological, and moral responses of the human body to its surroundings.” Encountering new information, as during reading, triggered the primary passion, admiration, which was followed in short order by curiosity, and then by any number of others: joy, grief, hatred, love, desire. In extreme cases, according to Johns, these passions could spiral out of control: “The passion of admiration, for example, while harmless enough in normal circumstances, could produce ‘Stupor, or Astonishment’—perhaps even catalepsy—if suffered in excess.” A whole host of mental and physical ills, from melancholy to scurvy to death, could be traced to passions run amok.
The very unpredictability of reading made it especially risky. As any reader intuits, we bring our own expectations, beliefs, and experiences to our books, and what a tale inspires in one of us may be quite different from what another takes away. But the physiology of the day had it that our perceptions of the world mixed freely in the brain with our imaginings—making it nearly impossible for readers to distinguish what they actually read from what they merely thought they read. Even an innocuous passage, then, might foist God-knows-what (or even more troublingly, “insight” from God Himself) on a reader.
Thankfully, 16th- and 17th-century Brits were trained to keep their thoughts in check during reading. Johns notes that one technique required readers to “imagine objects producing a passion contrary to that being experienced”; a second recommended that readers “delay judgment of an impression, perhaps by doggedly reciting the letters of the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer” in the hopes that our most dangerous passions could be waited out. Or, if all else failed, one might put down his novel and get to work on some algebra. Readers ignored these scholarly-sanctioned ways of reading at their own peril—especially women, who were particularly susceptible to being undone by the passions.
Flash forward 400 years, and these worries seem impossibly quaint (though we have only to look to video games for modern-day hysterics). “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us,” said Kafka, speaking for a younger, more physiologically astute, and less literal century. “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”
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