Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Dangers of Reading in Bed

Fun article by Nika Mavrody at the Atlantic on our ancestors' obsession with the literal and metaphorical dangers of reading in bed. The literal danger was falling asleep with a candle on and burning the house down:
Lord Walsingham’s servants found him in bed one morning in 1831, burnt to a crisp. . . . His wife also suffered a tragic end: Jumping out of the window to escape the fire, she tumbled to her death.

The Family Monitor assigned Lord Walsingham a trendy death. He must have fallen asleep reading in bed, its editors concluded, a notorious practice that was practically synonymous with death-by-fire because it required candles. The incident became a cautionary tale. Readers were urged not to tempt God by sporting with “the most awful danger and calamity”—the flagrant vice of bringing a book to bed. Instead, they were instructed to close the day “in prayer, to be preserved from bodily danger and evil.” The editorial takes reading in bed for a moral failing, a common view of the period.
The metaphorical danger was less gruesome but perhaps more interesting. Moralists distrusted reading in bed and regularly preached against it:
People feared that solitary reading and sleeping fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective—especially among women. The solitary sleeper falls asleep at night absorbed in fantasies of another world, a place she only knows from books. During the day, the lure of imaginative fiction might draw a woman under the covers to read, compromising her social obligations.
Who knew what a woman alone in bed with a book might be thinking or doing?

As Mavrody explains, this connects to a whole range of social and cultural changes: the spread of literacy and cheaply printed books, the rise of the novel, architectural changes that made the bedchamber a more private place, and the Romantic fascination with the imagination, especially the imagination of one person alone.

4 comments:

G. Verloren said...

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there were voices which espoused the dangers of the printing press, arguing that it would make books disposeable and valueless, and that having too many books available would confuse and harm the brain.

In the 18th century, when newspapers began to replace church sermons as the primary means of obtaining news, it was argued that they would socially isolate people by driving them to read about current events in silence, rather than hearing news spoken of aloud and engaging in conversation about it.

In the early 19th century, there was a dread fascination with the notion of the dangers of a steam locomotive passing through a tunnel at "high speed", with predictions that passengers would asphyxiate when going through a tunnel at 20 miles per hour, or that they would suffer irreversible shock to their systems at 30 miles per hour.

Around that same time, artists grieved for "the death of painting" in the face of the new technology of daguerreotypes, which it was believed would render artists obsolete. And toward the end of that century, neurologists suggested that newspapers and telegraphs were creating nervous disorders.

At the start of the 20th century, people feared that telephones would make people deaf, or kill them via electrocution. The phonograph, it was foretold, would spell the doom for live music. The radio, upon its debut, was expected to be so distracting and stupifying that people would simply stop thinking, and conversation itself would disappear as well.

Then the television made it big, and people were terrified that it would kill off not just conversation, but also the other things which were supposed to kill off conversation before it - namely radio and printed books. And then video games came along, and were assigned much the same phophetic fate. And then the internet... and then...

David said...

Taken in their own terms, aren't these reactionary analyses of innovation often sort of correct? It seems to me that in many cases private reading does encourage private satisfaction and fantasy at the expense of social obligation. Personally, I'm just fine with that; I'd much rather read something for myself than perform a community or work obligation, and I do. Am I on the side of reactionaries who want to take away small personal pleasures for the sake of traditional social obligations? No. But were they correct that private reading and fantasy represent a threat to those traditional values? I'd say so.

John said...

Photography certainly had some strange effects on painting.

But otherwise I wonder about cause and effect here. Was it the invention solitary novel reading that made us less communitarian, or did we invent solitary novel reading because we had already become less communitarian?

David said...

Well, it's not going to be either-or. For one thing, I would say there is always a balance in society between communitarian and anti-communitarian tendencies. So solitary novel reading isn't going to be creating anti-communitarianism ex nihilo, any more than any other historical changes are.

Room also has to be made for talking about feedback loops. Solitary novel reading might not create anti-communitarianism, but it would exacerbate it.