Can one imagine a time where reading was considered an immoral act? It was a time when cultural commentators lamented the increase in reading books. It is hard to comprehend a time when reading posed such a threat that many diagnosed it as reading addiction, reading rage, reading fever, reading mania, or reading lust. In the 18th century, with the new advent genre called ‘novel’, society’s response to reading changed dramatically. Perhaps it was an era similar to today where the young generation is mad over television and social media.
The behavior of reading books was considered insidious contagion and morally dissolute. It is no wonder that the 18th century was also the one to see the increased number of suicide and self-destruction cases. Perhaps not because of reading but because of immersing in the story to an extent where the individual starts recognizing themselves as the protagonist, not in inspirational form rather in a more perceptible form.
The 18th-Century Ideal: The ‘Love of Reading’
The increased behavior of reading was introduced with the emergence of the literary genre: the novel. A novel is a book or a number of books depicting a single story with great depth. Reading a novel is much similar to that watching a movie, the only difference is that while reading a novel- it is the person’s imagination that draws the events rather than just visualizing them. This gives readers the power to create a fantasy within their heads and live in it uncompromised. The commercial publishing of novels in the 18th century meant that the novels were widely available for people to read. But the growth of this constituency of readers was not welcomed by everyone and many considered it immoral behavior.
Novels became the youtube of the 18th century. The classic novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Rousseau’s Julie were the literary sensation. Young people were highly fascinated by the practice of reading and this unrestrained exposure to fiction was becoming more and more dangerous. The ‘Pamela fever’ indicated how powerful the influence of the novel was on the young population. Due to this most of the authors publish their works without their names attached. Around 72% of new novels published in Britain and Ireland between 1770-1799 were written by anonymous authors. This was the major reason why the public couldn’t deliberately stop the new novels from popping up every day.
With the huge popularity of novels, their prices also increased, many people could not afford them with their salary. But huge libraries readily provided such books to the public to issue, read and give back. This way without spending much money people can avail great books. Evidence from circulation records by the end of the 18th century proved that the share of novels among the borrowed book was 50% higher.
The publishing of ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ created a sensation among the young readers. It was a story of a young man named Werther who committed suicide in the name of love. It was a massive hit and Wether’s admirers started imitating his looks and even encapsulating his personality. Young men were seen wearing yellow trousers with blue tailcoats and boots representing their admiration of Werther. The generation adopted him as their idol or ‘hero’. Many of them even memorized excerpts from his letters published in the book and wept for months over the tragic death of their hero.
The Significant Decline In Novel- Reading
Witnessing the huge popularity of the fictional character of Werther, many companies started selling merchandise of the books. Plates, cups, and several other items were printed with the famous quotes and excerpts from the book. The impact of the Werther fever could be seen everywhere. But more than good this book also caused harm. The tragic death of the main character by suicide inspired several people to walk down the same fate who was entangled in similar tales. The novel unleashed the epidemic of copycat suicides. The ban on the book was introduced in 1775 and was not lifted until 1825 across Europe. The novel was also banned in Italy and Denmark. Even the writer and philosopher G.E. Lessing was uncomfortable about the influence of Werther on its readers.
It is not hard to understand that the novels as described were accessible literally to everybody at least vaguely literate. This was something the publishers and booksellers took good advantage of and on that basis novel-reading soon became a popular form of leisure and pleasure, the kind that could be easily compared to watching a television serial. But the other half of the community were also becoming aware of the cons of it and many people openly talked about the bad impacts of novel reading. The critique, opposition, and aversion became the most distinctive responses to novel reading in the 18th-century.
Similar to the ill effects of watching television and mobile phones, continuous novel reading also cited those issues. Like bad posture, stress, obesity issues, and anxiety. Soon the fear from novel-reading became widespread and agreed upon sentiment.
The best way to demonstrate the 18th century moral panic about novel reading was in some sense proved and in another exaggerated. Its pernicious effects were there but were never profound nor and any big disaster happened on that account. Yes, the era did witness a number of suicide cases but novels alone couldn’t be blamed for the inflation, there were numerous other factors igniting the same. If the manipulative potential of them were that great, it definitely wouldn’t have survived up until now. After all the number of novels, novel-readers and the whole literary network had risen considerably since the 18th century.
How Novel Reading Had Helped Society Grow?
For all the reasons, the 18th century is considered an era of the rise of novels. Though novels lived in our society for a long time, it was only until the 1700’s that they change the social structure of their time. It created a sort of revolution that can be well witnessed in the history of French, American, and Haitian revolutions. It gave people an opinion and a mindset. With this, the rise of the middle class also had a direct effect on the rise of novels, especially English novels. It influenced the reading culture among the middle and lower class and helped them to get acquainted with day-to-day happenings around the world.
Reading made people aware and educated as well as rewired certain areas of the brain. Since a wide population appreciated reading novels, the gap between the communities was shortened and many people hailing from the lower class find it easier to survive within the upper class. The introduction of novels majorly helped women to be educated and have an opinion. In the 18th century, though women did enjoy some privileges, they weren’t capable of giving a vote or having an opinion. But by the end of the century, many countries saw reforms, and women were allowed to vote. They even were encouraged to voice out their opinion and have a say in the government.
Despite the moral panic of the 18th century, Novels did a lot more good than bad and if it weren’t for these books, the world wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the classic tales of all time.