Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (3), Novel reading and health

My second post in this Trove Treasures subseries shared some arguments against novel reading. I do have a pro-novel-reading post, but today I thought I’d go a bit lighter – I think it’s lighter! – and some of the ideas I came across discussing the impact of novel reading on health.

Novel-reading disease

Woman reading with cushion

I found two articles that discussed addiction to novel reading, going so far as to liken those in its thrall to drunkards. One goes back to 1855, and is in fact a Letter to the Editor (31 March 1855) of The People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator. What a title for a paper! According to Wikipedia it was published in New South Wales from 1848 to 1856, and advocated on issues of importance for the working classes. In fact, Wikipedia says that it was “the first colonial paper to demand that the workers, as producers of all wealth, receive a fairer share of labour’s produce”. Great stuff, but this is not the subject of the Letter to the Editor.

Written by F.R. Surveyor (of Shoalhaven River) it expresses concern, not with occasional novel reading which simply represents a “criminal waste of time”, but with habitual novel reading which Surveyor describes as “detrimental to the health and vigour of the body”:

Novel reading tends to inflame the passions, pollute the imagination, and corrupt the heart. Moral sense is weakened by the false sentiment which novel writers inculcate. Novel reading is objectionable, because it creates an unnatural and morbid taste. It frequently becomes an inveterate habit, strong, fatal, as that of the drunkard. 

In this state of intoxication, great waywardness of conduct is almost sure to follow.

It also “destroys all taste for solid reading”.

Sixteen years later, on 2 November 1871, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article from The Examiner, titled “The Novel-Reading Disease”, and does it go to town. It commences by stating that “physicians are familiar with a complaint which, although sufficiently specific, has yet no name of its own” but it is caused by “over-indulgence in three-volume novels”. The article then chronicles the progression of this disease, explaining that at first the reader is simply found reading “at unnatural hours”, like “the early morning, or in the middle of a beautiful summer’s afternoon”. In this stage, readers exercise some discrimination in their reading choices, preferring Trollope, for example, over lesser authors. But soon, “the taste becomes deadened and blunted, and all power of distinction and appreciation is lost. In this stage the unhappy patient can no more go without her novel than can a confirmed dipsomaniac without his drain”. (There’s the equating with drunkenness again.) Quality goes out the window, quantity is everything. Indeed, “in the worst stages” of the disease, “novels are got through at the rate of three or four, or even five, a week, or at an average, in a severe and chronic case, of some two hundred and fifty or three hundred a year”.

And what does this disease do to its sufferers? Well, “the conversation of the patient becomes flabby and limp” leading eventually to “the last stage – that of absolute imbecility” unless “very powerful remedies” are applied. By this point in the article, all reference to sufferers are in the female gender. Indeed, the writer then says:

It is curious and interesting to observe that as this comparatively new female disease has grown more virulent and intense the old disease of scandal talking has become comparatively rare. It is, of course, physically difficult to talk scandal and to read a novel at one and the same time. 

True! Finally, the writer suggests that the cause of all this is the same as that for why “some young men smoke and drink bitter beer”. It’s the “sheer want of something to do”. The solution?

What a woman needs is an education which shall enable her to read and follow the Parliamentary debates instead of the police and divorce reports; and, when women are thus educated, then feeble novels and feeble novelists will vex our souls no longer to the horrible extent to which they irritate us at present.

I wanted to believe this article was tongue in cheek, it’s so extreme, but I don’t think it is. At least the writer recognises that women ought to receive an education!

Novel reading and wrinkles

Now for something lighter. I was astonished – and, I admit, delighted – to find an article titled “Novels and wrinkles”. I found it in multiple regional newspapers from South Australia and Victoria, but I’m using the Euroa Advertiser (12 February 1909). The article opens:

Excessive novel-reading (says a well-known beauty doctor) is responsible for the bad complexions, wrinkled foreheads, and sunken eyes of many young women.

Why specifically novel reading, do I hear you asking? Well, here’s the answer:

Many young women cause premature wrinkles to form on their fore heads by reading exciting novels. They sit for hours, often in an imperfect light, their brows furrowed, and if the book is a thrilling one, expressing on their faces unconsciously the emotions it excites. 

Our unnamed “beauty doctor” continues:

In a tram or railway journey one can notice the different expressions of a man reading a newspaper, and a woman – or a man, for that matter – reading a novel. The newspaper reader’s face is quite normal; but the expression on the novel-reader’s face is quite different. 

Priceless, really. Anyhow, fortunately, our “doctor” does not try to stop people reading novels, but “strongly” advises against reading novels “for hours at a stretch”. Have a break, he (it’s probably a “he”) says, and “above all, do not allow yourself to get too much excited by the book you are reading”. You heard it here, folks!

Reading in bed

Here is one relevant to many of us. It appeared in the Richmond Guardian (22 May 1926) and is “by a Medical Officer of Health”. Essentially, our MO believes this is a bad habit:

Beds were made to sleep in. The healthy man or woman who has never formed the bad habit of reading in bed, but, on the contrary, the good one of going to bed to sleep, finds little difficulty in wooing repose within a few minutes of his or her head touching the pillow.

So, if you “woo sleep easily” you “should studiously refrain from cultivating the habit of reading in bed”. However, there are those (besides invalids) for whom the practice might be useful. These include the “large number of apparently healthy people who find great difficulty in allowing sleep to overcome them”. There are many reasons for this, and you should try to remedy them first, but if the cause is not so easily removed, like “business and domestic worries”, then reading in bed may be a good not bad habit! These brains need something to switch them “into a different train of thought”.

But, our MO does have recommendations – about lighting (it must not strain the eyes), about position (do not lie on your side which “imposes considerable strain on the eyes”), and about reading matter. On this he is not prescriptive, saying “the choice may be safely left to individual tastes” except it should not relate to what is keeping you awake.

Finally, no reading in bed for children:

Children should not be encouraged to read in bed. The healthy child should be a little animal, and the healthy animal soon sleeps.

Reading and death

And now, the biggie! Does reading cause death? I came across two articles addressing this issue. The first, sadly, concerned a suicide, and was reported in The Bowral Free Press (19 July 1884). Titled “Effect of reading trashy novels” it reports that a young 20-year-old man had committed suicide by “shooting and hanging”. It briefly describes the manner, before concluding:

The cause of his suicide was reading sensational and trashy novels, which unsettled his brain.

On what authority this was decided, we are not told. Meanwhile, we do hear from a coroner in Perth’s The Daily News (27 November 1909) which contained a similarly brief report of a death. Titled “Coroner on novels”, it concerned the death of an 18-year-old nurse “who died from poisoning by spirits of salts”. The par concludes with:

the Coroner, commenting on the statement that the girl was given to the reading of novels, said he did not know whether novel-reading was evidence of weakness of mind. The practice, however, was generally confined to people who had little to do and had not much mind.

Over to you!

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (3), Novel reading and health

  1. The quotes at the beginning, about addiction, remind me of something the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran said – I read it years ago now but I still remember that she describes her relationship with reading during a time of great personal turmoil as being “like an alcoholic, drowning my inarticulate sorrows”. Though of course reading is a much healthier coping mechanism than alcohol!

  2. I hardly know where to begin. Now I know why my brow is so furrowed through a lifetime of unhealthy reading, which not only includes novels but the even trashier medium of comics. At least the 19th century commentators were spared the task of evaluating the effects of movies on the addled brains of the consuming classes.

    The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of patent medicines which absolutely cured every conceivable disease, and whose promoters extensively advertised in the press, probably including the same journals carrying the above letters and opinions. Many of these concoctions, often liberally laced with alcohol, would have caused far more harm than any number of novels.

    But I have learned one thing. Reading parliamentary debates in bed would probably be more sleep inducing than any number of novels.

  3. It is my contention that F.R. Surveyor is a nom de plume and is (as you suggest) a mischievous bloke who decided that Female Reading Surveyor has a fine ring to it ! [grin]

  4. Hi Sue, quite amusing, especially the thoughts of ‘F R Surveyor’. I rather the quote from George R R Martin – “A Reader Lives a Thousand Lives before he Dies. The Man who Never Reads only lives once.”

  5. I think last weekend there was an article in the paper (ie. The Age) on the subject of having a home office in your bedroom, which advocated keeping bedrooms just for sleeping. I’m sure if we hadn’t all grown up reading in our bedrooms, day AND night, in my case we would never have grown up to be the readers we are.

    As a boy I always read on my side, leaning on my elbow, which is not a posture I can maintain these days. Now I sit up straight with all my pillows. Does it stop me going to sleep? I only wish it did, I might get more reading done.

    • Agree with all you say Bill – re reading in bed as a child turning me into a reader, and re no longer reading on my side (mainly because my glasses get in the way.) Oh, and re reading not stopping me going to sleep. I too wish I could read more without the eyes drooping.

  6. Well I’m willing to risk it!
    I’ll read in bed, on my side, in poor light, in the morning or the afternoon. I’ll read trash and solids (what on earth is a solid book?) but I will NOT read the parlimentary papers!

  7. I’ll take any advice on reading and posture! At one point when I was first in college, back around 2004, I had so many classes with required reading (it was a lit and history heavy semester), I had the WORST neck pain for months. That experience made me cognizant of how I hold my books today and is another reason I enjoy my e-read — I can lean it up against something and not hold it at all.

  8. Sounds like a worthy research topic… for cosmetic or skin care company, how about observing those who read funny stories and watch comedies, (take care of those laugh lines) or whatever genres and how those activities would affect complexion. Could sell more wrinkle-resistant products.
    On another note, thank you for intro. me to The Quiet Girl. After you mentioned it i had read Claire Keegan’s “Foster” and “Small Things Like These”, and waited and finally watched the movie The Quiet Girl. CK is one writer I’ll watch out for… love how she writes in these two short stories. Just posted my review of TQG.

  9. Isn’t it said that Leopardi became a hunchback owing to too much study? Yet I wonder whether he might not have had scoliosis to begin with, and I doubt that novels formed that much of his reading.

    I have heard that during the Depression American radio stations were warned against playing Bolero, on the assumption that it might inspire the listeners to throw themselves out of windows. And about twenty years ago, there was a Hungarian movie, “Song for a Rainy Sunday”, in part based on the truth that some song or anyway piano piece in the 1930s was thought to have inspired a lot of suicides there.

    • The arts eh, George, just too dangerous!

      Bolero … you mean Ravel’s Bolero? It hadn’t made me think of doing that … then again I haven’t listened to it during a big Depression!

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