‘We must cultivate a love of reading’

Frank Furedi on the power of books, selfhood and Werther Fever.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

‘A book opens the door to a new world. It allows us to reimagine our circumstances, to test our personality and our ideas. It makes us who we are, a self that continually develops and gains definition though reading.’

Frank Furedi, academic, writer and regular spiked contributor, is talking about his new book Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, a fascinating, often revelatory account of the meaning and significance ascribed to reading and writing down the centuries. One thing that soon becomes clear in Power of Reading is that Furedi’s humanist love of letters has, for most of history, been the exception rather than the rule.

Writing in the 4th century BC, Plato, ventriloquising through Socrates, was already warning of the dangers of literacy. He said writing was a drug – pharmakon – and argued that it removed from individuals the responsibility to remember things. More concerning still for Plato was the freedom reading might grant the individual. Rather than listening and possibly engaging in a real-world dialogue with authoritative interlocutors, the reader would be able ‘to roam… about everywhere’, thinking for himself and forming his own judgements – which was deemed dangerous. ‘Socrates’ disapproval of the written text’, writes Furedi, ‘was based in part on a conviction that the pursuit of the truth was so demanding that only a few Athenian citizens could be trusted with its undertaking’.

This sense that reading and writing threatened extant authority by granting people excessive freedom, cultivating a consciousness of alternative, future possibilities, actually affirms Furedi’s belief in the power of reading, its ability to allow us ‘to reimagine our circumstances, to test our personality and our ideas’. ‘Before writing was really invented’, Furedi tells me, ‘reading was criticised for confusing people, for disorienting society, for creating a variety of medical problems, such as making you lose your memory, as Socrates famously argued. What’s very interesting is that these early critics of writing, almost semi-consciously, picked up on the fact that reading provides people with a gateway to a different moral world, where alternatives can be countenanced. And therefore reading always poses a threat to the prevailing order.’

As Furedi shows in this meticulously researched book, attitudes to reading and writing have continually reflected anxieties and fears about the undermining of existing or emerging forms of cultural authority. So, in the 2nd century, the Roman poet Juvenal was worried about what we’d now call ‘information overload’, just as the 14th-century humanist writer Petrarch was, too. Too many sources of writing meant too many claims to truth. Untrained, unsophisticated readers would be at best confused, and at worst, misled. Following the Dutch Renaissance, humanist philosopher Erasmus protested about ‘the swarms of new books’. Similarly, 17th-century English writer Barnaby Rich complained that ‘one of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world’.

As printing technology developed, and literacy increased during the 17th and 18th centuries, so concern among the conservative and Enlightened alike intensified. As Furedi rightly notes, this typically modern anxiety was born in the wake of the ebbing of traditional sources of moral authority, religious, monarchical or otherwise. But it manifested itself in complaints about, as Edmund Burke put it, the ‘swinish multitude’, and their penchant for ‘mindless and tasteless’ novels, to use the words of the German Kantian philosopher Johann Adam Bergk. Nowhere was this concern with the corrupting effect of literature more apparent than in the furore around Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Across Europe, eminent voices worried over so-called Werther Fever, a malady that supposedly led readers to over-identify with the self-destructive Werther and commit suicide. Charles Moore’s A Full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide (1790) criticised the influence of ‘free thinking’ and ‘liberal principles’, and warned specifically of the effect of Goethe’s Werther on England’s young-ish readers. Werther’s epistolary form was too immediate, too immersive, Moore complained; it appealed to the emotions, not reason. Elsewhere, prominent German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing worried that Werther’s popularity would ’cause more harm than good’. And, again, a contributor to the Analytical Review in 1788 declared, ‘I am sorry to see a taste prevail for novels which exhibit unnatural pictures of misery, and diffuse a kind of taste for the woeful’.

As Furedi explains, it’s not difficult to see a parallel between anxiety over Werther Fever and contemporary anxiety over violent computer games. ‘The media-effects theory always kicks in’, he tells me. ‘After all, it’s in the 18th century that the modern media emerges. And that’s when you get the first wave of moral panics about media. I mention The Sorrows of Young Werther, which people blamed for suicide en masse. These media reactions will recur in relation to newspapers, to the cinema and to television. I think what distinguishes the early modern and the 18th-century reactions to the media is that there wasn’t simply a concern about the moral disorder created by reading; there was also a fear that reading would encourage subversion, radical revolutionary ideas. In this sense, the anxieties that were raised then are a little bit different and more intense than the issues raised today with television or the internet, where people are principally concerned with anti-social or immoral behaviour.’

But Power of Reading also tells a counter-narrative that largely confirms the deepest fear of reading’s conservative antagonists; namely, that it does lead to the development of selfhood, of, ultimately, a discriminating, judging and increasingly autonomous individual. Ironically, as Furedi notes, the seeds of this secular selfhood are sown in the religious hermeneutic traditions of Christianity and Judaism. There, the reader would enter into a personal, individuated relationship to scripture, divining meaning through revelation and epiphany. Indeed, it was Saint Augustine who, through his profound engagement with the sacred texts in the 4th and 5th centuries, ‘gave birth to the West’s first developed theory of reading’, writes Furedi. For Augustine, the act of reading was not just revelatory; it was self-actuating. By distinguishing between the spirit and the letter of a text, the interior and the exterior, by reading ‘between the lines’ to produce his own reading, Augustine felt he elevated his ‘sense of subjectivity’. Furedi writes of the Augustinian legacy: ‘When individuals began to turn their inward eye upon themselves, reading acquired a more individualistic and secular dimension. For Petrarch, reading became a “means of meditating and engaging the world itself; it becomes, moreover, a way of knowing the self”‘.

This conception of reading as an act of self-revelation develops with the advent of silent reading among religious orders in the Middle Ages, and becomes more intellectually rigorous in the 12th and 13th centuries in the abbeys and cathedral schools from which, Furedi explains, universities would emerge. But it’s the Renaissance that’s key here. ‘One of the things we often forget’, Furedi tells me, ‘is that the emergence of the individual and a sense of self is intrinsically related to the culture of reading in the Renaissance. It’s very much through reading that people acquire their very specific identity. It’s through reading that people are able not simply to decode the text, but also to reflect on themselves. That’s because one of the consequences of reading is that it encourages an internal dialogue, which is a precondition for people developing a sense of individuality.’

In Furedi’s telling, the Renaissance affirmation of the act of reading turns into the popular ‘love of reading’ with the development of a mass market and an ever-growing literate public. ‘One of the things that really surprised me’, he explains, ‘is that the love of reading took such a long time to emerge. It’s mainly in the 18th century that people begin to read for pleasure, not just instrumentally, because it’s a religious duty or to gain information. Because it’s at this point that the pleasure of reading becomes embraced by a significant group of people – public readers. Part and parcel of that pleasure is that people start to use books, especially novels, as a way of exploring themselves. It’s precisely because of the pleasure of reading, and the potential to lose oneself from the world, that some start to condemn reading, denouncing it as an addiction. At this point, people start to talk about “reading mania”. Even Enlightenment advocates assert that reading for pleasure will distract people from reading for educational reasons. And religious moralists complain that reading will distract people from their religious duty. So you have a very important culture evolving that affirms the value of reading and, at the same time, a culture that regards the reading of novels as a moral threat.’

What’s striking about the contemporary situation is the extent to which that humanist ‘love of reading’ has receded. Few today defend reading on the grounds that it allows for the development of subjectivity, that it is essential to the cultivation of selfhood. As Furedi sees it, reading lacks a strong cultural affirmation. ‘This is a tragic development’, he says. ‘As the authority of the book, of reading, is contested and called into question, increasingly what is being taught in schools is literacy skills. This is different to teaching reading, which involves learning how to read between the lines, to find meaning and to interpret.’

And why has the authority of the book, and the value of reading, diminished? Furedi situates the shift initially in a Cold War context, in which a humanist defence of the importance of literacy gives way to an instrumental defence of literacy, as a functional skill essential to improving economic performance. This, in turn, fuelled the countercultural left’s conviction that literacy, and education in general, was little more than a form of social control – ‘an ideologically shaped activity that is deeply implicated in coercive power relations’, as Furedi characterises it. A disenchantment with the value of reading, and a disillusionment with the fundamental values of Western civilisation begin to hold sway.

Furedi admits that he was surprised to discover this disenchantment begins as early as the mid-20th century. ‘I didn’t realise that already in the 1960s, there was a reaction against the authority of the book, the authority of literacy. Because of the loss of clarity and authority of literature, people begin to look away from literary culture. And what you get is a very primitivist, pre-Enlightenment critique of reading – almost an adoption of the Socratic critique in a degraded form. Influential critics start arguing that literature is overrated, and orality is elevated as a purer form of experience.

‘This is the moment’, continues Furedi, ‘when Marshall McLuhan is becoming very influential in media theory. And of course one of the interesting things is that during the 1960s, literature, because it’s bound up with Western culture and civilisation, is somehow deemed oppressive because it denies the knowledge of non-literate, oral-based communities. Orality is almost raised into this morally superior form. That tells us that the intellectual malaise of the time, the cultural crisis, became very hospitable to any criticisms of literary culture, of book reading, and of the authority of the author and of the reader.’

Furedi explains that in the absence of any cultural affirmation of reading as a valuable activity, a pragmatic attitude reigns. ‘Delving into the depths of a novel, undertaking a journey of explanation, which the reader can follow, is no longer seen as the job of a university literature department or a school. So, under those circumstances, what you’re left with is the vestiges of a reading culture in which a handful of people still take literature very, very seriously, but as an elitist, marginal activity not worthy of the affirmation that would have come its way in different times.’

Lest anyone mistake the Power of Reading for a lament, Furedi remains upbeat. ‘Contrary to the criticisms of the internet, I’m not particularly worried about the decline of the book or of literature. My only concern is that a lot of people have switched off to the challenge of giving a meaning to their experience of writing and reading. But that is an important task: to cultivate a love of reading among a younger generation. That’s why I wrote this book – we need to develop a 21st-century language through which the love of reading can be expressed.’

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.

Power of Reading: Socrates to Twitter, by Frank Furedi, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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