The Novel-Reading Disease

Every historian can testify that one of the real stimulants in their field of study is happening quite unexpectedly upon amusing choice morsels, even if they come via the help of Google Books. Here’s one that I happened across today on the dangers of engaging in that most womanly of contemporary vices – reading novels!

‘The Novel-Reading Disease’ and ‘Novel-Reading and Insanity’ both appeared in The Sabbath School Magazine, designed for the use of teachers, adult scholars, and parents (ed. William Keddie; Glasgow: John M’Callum, 1872), 34.


  1. Is this lifted from the DCC meeting notes? “it is an open question… …whether it would not be well to enable the ratepayers of a district to limit the number of circulating libraries, or even to close them altogether.”


  2. The thing that immediately struck me about the first article was it’s very perceptive insight that people read novels for the same reasons that they engage in gossip, that, indeed, novel reading is a form of gossip. Which, of course, is absolutely correct, and a very good reason to read novels (Gillian Rose’s suggestion that Miss Marple is a kind of Kierkegaardian ‘knight of faith’ is not entirely besides the point here.) Second, the references to “listlessness” again embodies an insight about the unique quality of the time of the novel, the need for a bourgeois sense of leisure, which is not unrelated to a kind of bourgeois ennui and melancholy (here again the writer understands something important). And the other writer’s claim that reading novels can lead to insanity is also, of course, entirely correct (so too, can reading theology or philosophy).
    Anyway, in one sense we’re back to Plato vs. the tragedians, and it is perhaps worth considering that Plato may have understood something important about the Greek tragedy that he rejects. But perhaps it’s not so much Plato as a kind of 19th C. utilitarianism (as inimical to Platonic contemplation as it is to the tragedians conception of human dignity). Reading novels does not make you a productive member of society. Exactly. Perhaps there are more important things than being productive. Like being bored.


  3. as an aside: I’m currently reading Joyce Carol Oates’ Journal. I met someone the other day for coffee and they remarked on the book, having never heard of Oates. I mentioned that she was remarkably prolific, publishing many novels, short stories, literary criticism, and all the while teaching. ‘But did she have a life?’, was the question I was then asked. This seemed to me an almost blasphemous question, having in the last few days been exposed, in however small a way, to the workings of what could only be described an an extraordinarily rich imagination.


  4. @ Mike: In this case it was relatively easy because the book was available as a full pdf download. After downloading the book, I then saved the page I wanted as a jpg, and then edited it to make it as readable as I could, and presto. Hope that that makes sense.


  5. yea… gossip, and then novels that lead to insanity… I guess they could too…. so many human pursuits can lead one towards insanity… email, facebook, atheism, murder, supporting St. Kilda football club in Melbourne … and the pursuit of—and immediate expectation of—local, or global justice, in this one crazy, unfair, political, and often heartless world.

    Fishing, farming, fixing a fractured femur, flying kites and reading Forsyth, still seem worthwhile, however. Fortunately.


  6. Thanks for the responses regarding copying a page from Google books. As it happens I’ve just come across an offline reader for Google Books called GooReader, appropriately enough. I can copy from that (it turns the pages into jgps or other image versions), but at the moment I’m just reading info about the manslaughter in the UK of one of my possible forebears, a William Crowl, who was killed in a streetfight on the 28th May, 1839!


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.