Thursday, December 17, 2015

Books Are Dangerous

From Aeon:
At universities around the world, students are claiming that reading books can unsettle them to the point of becoming depressed, traumatised or even suicidal. Some contend that Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), in which a suicide has taken place, could trigger suicidal thoughts among those disposed to self-harm. Others insist that F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), with its undercurrent of spousal violence, might trigger painful memories of domestic abuse. Even ancient classical texts, students have argued, can be dangerous: at Columbia University in New York, student activists demanded that a warning be attached to Ovid’s Metamorphoses on grounds that its ‘vivid depictions of rape’ might trigger a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability among some undergraduates.

This is probably the first time in history that young readers themselves are demanding protection from the disturbing content of their course texts, yet reading has been seen as a threat to mental health for thousands of years. In accordance with the paternalistic ethos of ancient Greece, Socrates said that most people couldn’t handle written text on their own. He feared that for many – especially the uneducated – reading could trigger confusion and moral disorientation unless the reader was counselled by someone with wisdom. In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, written in 360 BCE, Socrates warned that reliance on the written word would weaken individuals’ memory, and remove from them the responsibility of remembering. Socrates used the Greek word pharmakon – ‘drug’ – as a metaphor for writing, conveying the paradox that reading could be a cure but most likely a poison. Scaremongers would repeat his warning that the text was analogous to a toxic substance for centuries to come.

Many Greek and Roman thinkers shared Socrates’ concerns. Trigger warnings were issued in the third century BCE by the Greek dramatist Menander, who exclaimed that the very act of reading would have a damaging effect on women. Menander believed that women suffered from strong emotions and weak minds. Therefore he insisted that ‘teaching a woman to read and write’ was as bad as ‘feeding a vile snake on more poison’.

In 65 CE, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca advised that the ‘reading of many books is a distraction’ that leaves the reader ‘disoriented and weak’. For Seneca the problem was not the content of a specific text but the unpredictable psychological effects of unrestrained reading. ‘Be careful,’ he warned, ‘lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady.’ (Read more.)

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