Literature may be Harmful to your Health

Ray Porter

NOTE: From History Today (March 1998).
Author Roy Porter
is professor in the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.
He is the author of  ‘The Greatest Benefit to Mankind’: A Medical History of Humanity (HarperCollins, 1997).

A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, writes John Milton, proleptically puffing the Everyman series. Or listen to Doris Lessing on learning to read: 'The delicious excitement of it all... the discoveries... the surprises... I was intoxicated a good part of the time.' Or Sue Townsend: ‘Reading became a secret obsession... I went nowhere without a book – the lavatory, a bus journey, walking to school.'

The propaganda is endless. Ignore it! Caveat lector, I say – and don’t pretend you weren’t warned. 'Much learning doth make thee mad,' cautions the Acts of the Apostles a long time back, while the Greeks well knew the dangers. Plato’s Phaedrus, you will recall, recounts an Egyptian myth concerning the invention of writing. Thoth offers the gift of writing to King Thamus, claiming it will ‘make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories.' The real effect, counters Thamus, will be the opposite: writing ‘will implant forgetfulness in their souls [and] they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.’ Knowledge may thus wax, but wisdom will wane. Writing, moreover, is a deceiver; as the reading habit grows, love of the real atrophies.

And since Antiquity there have been countless cautions against the pride of the pen. Foolish beyond belief ‘are those who strive to win eternal fame by issuing books,’ declared Erasmus in the Praise of Folly:

watch how pleased they are with themselves when they are praised by the ordinary reader, when someone points them out in a crowd with ‘There is that remarkable man’ when they are advertised in front of the booksellers’ shops.


Feet off the ground: Gustave Doré showed Don Quixote soaring above the earthbound ranks of scholars and publishers, his imagination set free by his immersion in the printed word.

Such exposés accompanied post-Gutenberg misgivings about the perils of print. ‘How poor is the proficiency that is merely bookish!’ declared Montaigne. The Moderns in the Battle of the Books proclaimed truth was to be found in Nature, through observation and experiment. So poring over books was pointless.

In short, an honourable dissenting tradition has fired off books against books, and such fusillades have been echoed by others of different ideological stripes, fearful of books sapping virtue and piety – hence the setting up in 1559 of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The salutary idea that people are better off illiterate has had its political champions too. ‘Reading, writing and arithmetic are... very pernicious to the poor,’ argued the Dutch-born satirist Bernard Mandeville, since they would get uppity. Indeed, positively criminal, according to the nineteenth-century French psychiatrist, Lauvergue, who observed that ‘the most unreformable criminals are all educated.’ His compatriot Hippolyte Taine similarly drew attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were the sole people in Europe among whom criminality was declining. Why was that? It was because the British education system was so bad.

If book-learning were dangerous in general, it was doubly so for the weaker vessel. The seventeenth-century poet, Alessandro Tassoni cautioned:

There is no doubt, but that study is an occasion of exciting lust, and of giving rise to many obscene actions... Hence, as I suppose it is, that we find, in Euripides and Juvenal, that the learned women of antiquity were accused of immodesty.

Of course, all such wholesome reasonings have now been hopelessly compromised by today’s politically-correct nostrums of human rights, democracy and feminism. That is why it is so important for me to get across the true dangers: the medical ones. Reading is, quite literally, disastrous for your health. Now that T-bone steaks have been banned in Britain, I look to government action.


Michel de Montaigne’s essays combined his love of books with an honest understanding of human frailty.

Let me explain. Every occupation has its maladies: housewife’s knee, athlete’s foot. Authors too have their afflictions. One of course is writer’s block. Joseph Conrad despaired:

"I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day... In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair...  It takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming the wife."

The diametrically opposite disorder is writer’s itch. ‘Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon,’ George III (or, some say, his brother, the Duke of Gloucester) famously buttonholed the historian of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

 Linked to the libido sciendi, this cacoethes scribendi had already reached epidemic proportions by the Renaissance. Robert Burton confirms in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):


Reading can make you blind: Georg Barthisch’s illustration of eye disease, 1583.

’Tis most true, there is no end of writing of books, as the Wise-man found of old, in this scribbling age especially, wherein the number of books is without number, (as a worthy man saith) presses be oppressed.

Overall, however, the perils of writing were judged but a fleabite compared with those of reading. Having your nose in a book, as any Renaissance doctor would inform you, was bad for the humours. ‘Students,’ thought Burton, are commonly troubled with :

gouts, catarrhs, rheums, wasting, indigestion, bad eyes, stone, and colick, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting.

‘The scholar’, he concluded, ‘is not a happy man’.

Poring over books moreover ruined the posture. That risk was poetically expressed by William Wordsworth:



Educated in the university of life: in these 19th-century illustrations to Rabelais’ work, the doctor and scholar Thubal Holophernes demonstrates his erudition.
Up! Up! my friend, and quit your books!
Or surely you’ll grow double.
Up! Up! my friend and close your books
Why all this toil and trouble?

To forestall such physical troubles, the nineteenth-century German doctor and pedagogue Moritz Schreber developed a variety of orthopaedic devices to force children to sit straight and keep their chins up. Take his ‘straightener’ (Geradehalter), a device that prevented its wearer from bending forward while writing, which he claimed had done the trick with his own offspring. Or the ‘headholder’, meant to promote proper posture by pulling the wearer’s hair as soon as the head began to droop.

The evils of enforced book-learning had long been stressed. Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs Thrale, told the tale of a fourteen-year-old who had been bashed over the head by his Master with a dictionary,

which so affected his health that his powers of Study were strangely impaired, his Memory lost, and a perpetual pain pressing the part... Physicians of course were called in, who blistered, bled and vomited him; but the Complaint continuing obstinate he was actually Trepanned.

Only the sublimely witless would escape unscathed. One such was Gargantua. In Book One of the History of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais related how

they appointed as Gargantua’s tutor a great doctor and sophist named Thubal Holofernes, who taught him his letters so well that he said them by heart backwards; and he took five years and three months to do that. Then the sophist read to him Donatus, Facetus, Theodolus, and Alanus in Parabolis, which took thirteen years six months and a fortnight... [and so forth] by the reading of which he became as wise as any man baked in an oven.


Pantagruel less-than-enthusiastically digests the chronicles.

But our Gargantua was proof against all these malign influences!

He studied for a miserable half-hour, his eyes fixed on his book, but – as the comic poet says – his soul was in the kitchen.

Gargantua was fortunate, because clever pupils had their wits warped by the nonsense the pedants dinned into them, as his own son Pantagruel was to discover from his fellow students:

‘So you come from Paris’, said Pantagruel. ‘And how do you spend your time, you gentlemen students at this same Paris’?

We transfretate the Sequana at the dilucule and crepuscule; we deambulate through the compites and quadrives of the urb; we despumate the Latin verbocination and, as verisimile amorabunds, we captate the benevolence of the omnijugal, omniform, and omnigenous feminine sex...

At which Pantagruel exclaimed: ‘What devilish language is this? By God, you must be a heretic’.

That other Rabelaisian hero, Panurge, was to note a further hazard of reading hard matter: constipation.

I happened to read a chapter of the stuff once, at Poitiers, at the Scotch Decretalipotent doctor’s, and devil take me if I wasn’t constipated for more than four, indeed for five days afterwards. I only shat one little turd.

The rectum was thus at risk, but that was not the only vulnerable part of the anatomy. ‘On Tuesday last’, reported the Glasgow Journal on June 21st, 1742, ‘as an Old Man was lying in the Green reading a Book, he was attack’d by the Town Bull, who tore two of his Ribs from the Back Bone, and broke his Back Bone. His Life is despair’d of. The price of learning can be high indeed.’

Above all, reading, as everyone knows, was murder on the eyes – Milton blamed it for his blindness, and Samuel Pepys too thought he was going the same way. ‘19 March 1668: So parted and I to bed, my eyes being very bad – and I know not how in the world to abstain from reading,’ he lamented to his soon-to-be-discontinued diary.



Devices for correcting the posture: Moritz Schreber’s straightener, worn to keep a child upright while writing.

Alongside the physical damage, psychiatrists have long urged upon the harm reading could also do to your mind. For one thing, it encouraged hypochondria. In his Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1730), the aformentioned Bernard Mandeville laid bare the psychopathology of print through a dialogue between a physician, Philopirio, and his patient, Misomedon.

Misomedon relates his sad history. A well-bred gentleman, he ruined his constitution by ‘good living.’ He then consulted a gaggle of learned physicians but none of their treatments worked. Convinced he was sinking from every sickness known to scholars, he developed ‘a mind to study Physick’ himself – but his studies merely made bad worse, until finally he persuaded himself that he had the pox – ‘when I grew better, I found that all this had been occasion’d by reading of the Lues, when I began to be ill; which has made me resolve since never to look in any Book of Physick again, but when my head is in very good order’.

If not hypochondria, too much reading would certainly induce exhaustion or what would today be called ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – a condition versified by that eminent Victorian, Matthew Arnold:

But so many books thou readest
But so many schemes thou breedest
But so many wishes feedst
That thy poor head almost turns.

Reading addled the brain, a situation exacerbated as books multiplied. Anxious about that ‘horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,’ Leibniz called for a moratorium back in 1680. To no avail. According to the late eighteenth-century Bristol physician, Thomas Beddoes, his era was suffering from chronic information overload – all those pamphlets and periodicals, novels and newspapers befuddling the brain! ‘Did you see the papers today? Have you read the new play – the new poem – the new pamphlet – the last novel?’ was all you heard: ‘You cannot creditably frequent intelligent company, without being prepared to answer these questions, and the progeny that springs from them.’ The consequence?

You must needs hang your heavy head, and roll your bloodshot eyes over thousands of pages weekly. Of their contents at the week’s end, you will know about as much as of a district through which you have been whirled night and day in the mail-coach.

The inevitable result was that you blew a fuse. ‘He might be a very clever man by nature for aught I know,’ wrote Robert Hall of the compiler of encyclopaedias, Dr Andrew Kippis, ‘but he laid so many books upon his head that his brains could not move.’ Bookishness was recognised as addictive, psychopathological, as the Manchester physician John Ferriar versified in his Bibliomania:

What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man, who feels the book-disease,

‘Beware of the bibliomanie,’ Lord Chesterfield counseled his son. He might also have had Walter Shandy in mind. But the classic fictional case-history of reading precipitating madness is, of course, Don Quixote. Cervantes explains how his hero got into tilting at windmills:



Devices for correcting the posture: a corrective measure of the 1820s for holding up the head – by pulling the hair.
The reader must know, then, that this gentleman, in the times when he had nothing to do – as was the case for most of the year – gave himself up to the reading of books of knight errantry, which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost entirely forgot his hunting, and even the care of his estate... He so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.

Small wonder, then, that madhouses had their bibliomaniacs, surrounded by books, reading obsessively. On visiting Bethlem in 1786, the German novelist Sophie von la Roche found an unnamed man, doubtless a historian, ‘in the lowest cells, with books all around him.’ She also met Margaret Nicholson, George III’s would-be assassin, sitting reading Shakespeare.

Visiting Ticehurst asylum in Sussex in 1839, Mr. and Mrs. Epps came across a certain Joshua Mantell, seated in a large, comfortable room, by a good fire, encircled by books and papers. They had a long talk concerning a book Joshua said he was about to publish. Only later were the Epps's informed that he was suffering from delusions of authorship.

Such cases abound. At the Gloucester asylum, one Sarah Oakey, a Cheltenham laundress, was admitted in 1826 suffering from melancholia, ‘supposed to be brought on by reading novels.’ At the Nottingham asylum, John Daft – nomen est omen – ‘was bought in by the Overseer... his father reports that he has been sober and industrious and ascribes his morbid mind to the reading of Carlisle’s [sic] works.' Or take the Reverend William Thomson, admitted in 1817 to the Glasgow Royal. ‘For ten months previous to his illness’, states his record, ‘he had been engaged in publishing a book.’

Sometimes it worked the other way round: the mad took to reading. In 1872, Dr. William Chester Minor, a Connecticut surgeon, was sent to Broadmoor. While there he became a collaborator in compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. Permitted to turn his rooms into a library, with a writing desk and floor-to-ceiling teak bookshelves, he was even able to buy books from London antiquarian dealers, which were briefly brought to him by the woman whose husband he had murdered.

The pathology of print became all too familiar. Novel-reading among fashionable young ladies was said to lead to hysteria or the vapours. ‘If women who spent their energies on their brains married,’ warned the Victorian psychiatrist Thomas Clouston, ‘they seldom had more than one or two children,’ and ‘only puny creatures at that, whom they cannot nurse, and who either die in youth or grow up to be feeble-minded folks.’ ‘Beware, oh beware,' mocked Frances Power Cobbe, the feminist, ‘Science pronounces that the woman who – studies – is lost!’



Heading for a fall? ‘The Bookworm’, depicted by Karl Spitzweg (1808-85).

All agreed that, of all the harmful trash, ‘NOVELS undoubtedly are the sort most injurious’. Romances, Beddoes noted, ‘increase indolence, the imaginary world indisposing those who inhabit it in thought to go abroad into the real.' Above all, they provoked vicarious sexual arousal. Hence ‘a variety of prevalent indispositions... may be caught from the furniture of a circulating library.’

So what was to be done? Beddoes was convinced that what was needed was good healthy activity – ‘Botany and gardening abroad, and the use of a lathe, or the study of experimental chemistry at home’. Stressing how self-abuse ‘often ends in a lunatic asylum,’ Lord Baden-Powell later advocated scouting for boys. But the favoured remedy for nervous prostration was the rest cure, pioneered by Dr Silas Weir Mitchell in the US. This involved total bed rest and a complete ban on all stimulus. His most famous patient was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, later author of "The Yellow Wallpaper." In 1887, suffering from chronic acute depression, she had consulted Mitchell, who enforced the rest cure for a month and then discharged her, commanding her to lead a domestic life, to cut her reading to two hours a day, and to give up writing altogether. ‘I went home,’ she related, ‘and obeyed these directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin’.

The same treatment was also prescribed for the young Virginia Woolf by the psychiatrist Sir George Henry Savage. Forced to stay bookless in Cambridge with an aunt, she rebelled:

London means my own home, and books, and pictures, and music, from all of which I have been parted since February now – and I have never spent such a wretched eight months in my life. And yet that tyrannical, and as I think, shortsighted Savage insists upon another two... I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace. This would be possible at Gordon Sq: and nowhere else. I wonder why Savage doesn’t see this.

The reason is plain. Savage judged reading one of the key causes of female derangement.

Books indeed can kill. The saddest story is related by Dr James Currie of Liverpool around 1800. It concerns a mental patient whose mind gave way after he indulged in visionary speculations on the perfectibility of man. To put him right, the kindly Currie explained Malthus’ principle of population. His response, however, was to produce ‘a scheme for enlarging the surface of the globe, and a project for an act of parliament for this purpose, in a letter addressed to Mr Pitt.’ To show that even this fantastic measure could not provide a way out of the Malthusian trap, Currie actually handed the young man Malthus’ Essay. This he read twice, aloud the second time, not omitting a single word, and then, after a few distressing days, he quietly lay down and died. ‘At the moment that I write this,’ Currie concluded, ‘his copy of Malthus is in my sight; and I cannot look at it but with extreme emotion.’



A soft heart and a soft head? ‘Lady Reading’, by Joseph Frederick Soulacroix (1825-97).

So Disraeli was right. In his early novel Lothair, one of his characters exclaims:

Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race... The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.

Yet I must not end on a negative note. Occasionally at least the printed page has been positively therapeutic. Many suffering from the toothache, Rabelais recorded,

after expending all their substance on doctors without any result, have found no readier remedy than to put the said Chronicles between two fine linen sheets, well warmed, and apply them to the seat of the pain, dusting them first with a little dry-dung powder.

Sterne offers his variant in Tristram Shandy. When Phutatorius’ membrum virile is frazzled by a roast chestnut which plops off his plate down into his breeches, cure is effected by application of a leaf from a new book, still damp and inky from the press. ‘No furniture so charming as books,’ quipped Sydney Smith, while Grub Street writers reflected that sheets from unread books at least achieved some utility as pastry cases or paper bags.

That might, however, be sacrilege, if the work in question were theological. One of Rabelais’ clerics observes that when a holy book was used as wrapping paper, ‘I renounce the devil if everything that was wrapped up in them did not immediately become spoiled.’ The most sacrilegious use of such spare sheets was as bum fodder – and naturally this had the direst repercussions:



In 1826 Carl-Christian-Constantin Hansen painted his sisters innocently endangering their health with a book.
‘One day,’ said Friar John, ‘when I was at Seuilly, I wiped my bum with a page of one of these wretched Clementines that John Guimard, our bursar, had thrown out into the cloister meadow, and may all the devils take me if I wasn’t seized with such horrible cracks and piles that the poor door to my back passage was quite unhinged.’

The secular Lord Chesterfield, however, had no hesitations about treating literature as bumf. Urging time-discipline upon his recalcitrant son, he told a little tale:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments, and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.

Try that perhaps, but, above all, don’t get hooked on books. Heed the immortal words of the superintendent in Joe Orton’s Loot: ‘Reading isn’t an occupation we encourage among police officers. We try to keep the paper work down to a minimum.’

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