These days we’re desperately trying to get more people to read (“Please, read anything, here’s a YA novel by the Kardashians”) but in the 1800s, it was a different story. Books were supposed to teach people about science, philosophy and religion, not lead someone down an exciting path filled with action, drama and heartbreak. The thought that reading could be a joy instead of a chore and accessible to anyone with a dime scared many in positions of authority, because the works of Socrates didn’t stand a chance next to bestselling author May Agnes Fleming and The Unseen Bridegroom:Wedded for a Week.
To stem the popularity of novels, articles appeared in periodicals like The Mother’s Magazine and The Guardian and in books like Rev. J.T. Crane’s Popular Amusements, which recommended total abstinence from novel-reading. Why?
Fiction makes your mind flabby.
For decades, novels were considered “light” reading, because readers didn’t take away knowledge or moral instruction from the book, they just read for the fun of it. Reading novels didn’t, in theory, exercise the brain and so left the thought processes to deteriorate. Not only did these critics never try to deduce the culprit in a mystery novel, they probably hadn’t read Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1828 novelPenham. That high society-based book was basically a celebrity tell-all with the names changed, and became a hit when readers worked to figure out the real people behind the characters. Deductive reasoning is always fun when gossip is involved.
Stories can leave you dissatisfied with reality.
People are usually dissatisfied with reality anyway, that’s why they read. Then and now, readers think about characters and plotlines long after the book is closed, escaping personal drudgery for a while. But the real threat was readers would keep these fanciful ideas in their heads and quit being grateful just because they were alive. Soon they would want better lives with more adventure and romance and less back-breaking work and death. They would be more susceptible to day-dreaming, which “destroys mental balance,” or worse, forget about duty to church, family and work, and run off willy-nilly in search of happiness and self-discovery.
Novels stoke the emotions.
Romance novels were the main offenders here, because religious leaders and educators felt that these “domestic” novels simply worked the reader up too much. Young men and ladies might identify with the characters so strongly, they would become obsessed with the promise of love and seek out better relationships rather than just learn to settle for whomever was available. The thought that people wanted passion and excitement was frightening. If people started doing whatever they wanted, critics reasoned, chaos would rule and communities would break down. If this was true and they had Danielle Steel or Johanna Lindsey back then, the world would have likely exploded.
Sensational works can numb the soul to tragedy.
Ask anyone who read The Fault in Our Stars or the last couple of Harry Potter books, and they’ll likely tell you there was plenty of sobbing and Kleenex involved. But critics were afraid that if people read too many gripping thrillers, crime stories or sad, tragic tales, it would shred their morals and make them into unfeeling cads with no sympathy for their fellow humans. They didn’t realize that reading these stories gave readers an outlet to feel wicked or sad with no strings attached, and made them more empathetic. Books like Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 novel The Coquette, the tragic tale of an unmarried, pregnant girl and her child, actually did teach to the morals of the day but also made people think about the fully-drawn character and her circumstances.
While these side effects seem ridiculous to us now, at least E. S. Janes, who wrote the introduction to Popular Amusements in 1869, recognized the flow of time. “The fashionable follies of the last century are now deemed matters of wonder and derision,” he said, “just as the follies of our day may be laughed at a hundred years hence.”
Thank goodness they never saw the Internet.