- Introduction:Pathological Reading
Of all the connections between literature and medicine, arguably one of the most intriguing but neglected is the idea that reading can in itself be a cause of disease. It seemed to the editors of this themed issue that it would be apt for a journal called Literature and Medicine to examine this key aspect of the interaction between the two halves of its title. The debate on the moral and political threat posed by books is much better known and has been the basis of anxiety and whole systems of censorship since the First Emperor of China, who is reputed to have destroyed a large proportion of the texts in the country in 213 BC, and even to have buried 460 scholars alive.1 Although destroying books has come to be seen as taboo since the Nazis, works such as Clockwork Orange (1962) have continued to provoke anxiety about public order among observers, and since Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988), the religious aspect of this debate has experienced a remarkable revival. However, as we shall see, the suggestion that books might threaten the mental and physical health of individual readers has also been surprisingly common over the past few centuries, a strong countercurrent to the bourgeois and bohemian narratives of the virtues of books. The articles in this issue therefore look at a long medical tradition of fretting about the impact of reading on the health of bodies and minds since the Enlightenment.
The so-called diseases of the learned (Gelehrtenkrankheiten) have long been the subject of medical interest, from Pseudo-Aristotelian theories of melancholy genius to Marsilio Ficino’s work during the Renaissance, which emphasized reading as a cause for the diseases of students.2 However, in many ways the critique of reading as a cause of real mental and physical sickness took off in the eighteenth century, when concerns about excessive serious reading were combined with new fears about the impact of fiction. Along with other luxury items such as tea, coffee, and sugar, novels came to be associated with a [End Page 242] pathological excess of stimulation linked to a variety of diseases. A whole range of conditions was put down to the deleterious effect of reading on vulnerable bodies and minds. Some of these afflictions, such as hemorrhoids and poor eyesight, were based on a rather banal fear of the consequences of the physical act of reading. However, the main focus of medical warnings about the danger of books related to their effects on the imagination and the nervous system. Drawing on medical treatises such as George Cheyne’s influential The English Malady (1733), physicians and laypeople elaborated theories about the health hazards of overstimulation.3 Thereafter parallel medical critiques, of both serious study and of supposedly flippant or sensual novels, flourished.
The fact that novels were often written and read by women and often partook of the cult of sensibility put them at the heart of anxieties about female “weak nerves,” empowerment, and vice. The leading Edinburgh physician Robert Whytt was expressing a widespread attitude when he wrote in 1765 that, “Women, in whom the nervous system is generally more moveable than in men, are more subject to nervous complaints, and have them in a higher degree.”4 The cult of sensibility, which drew heavily on medical thinking regarding the nerves, played a central role in promoting an ideal of female gentility that laid the foundations for clichés about ladies with the “vapours.” One of the principal fears linked to reading was the moral-medical issue of love and sexuality.5 The sense that bad books (especially French romances) could lead to lost virginity, elopements, adultery, hysteria, or sexually transmitted disease haunts much of the debate on women and dangerous books, reflecting broader agendas of social control. The mixture of moral and medical critiques of reading reflected broader eighteenth-century trends at a time when, as Thomas Anz puts it, “The health movement . . . went as far as to regard immoral behavior an illness. Illness was interpreted morally and immorality was pathologized.”6
The tone of the critique became harsher after the...