A few years ago an opinion piece “Why Books are Overrated,” by literature professor Mikita Brottman, appeared in The Week. (I’m glad I kept it, because it’s not available online.) Brottman argues against the hazards of too much reading. She’s certainly right to deflate the cant phrases that educators have slung at us for decades about the inherent virtues of the book.
So in-your-face, so taken for granted is this faith in the healing power of literature, it’s hard to believe such assumptions have emerged only in the last 50 years, postdating the development of all the other kinds of [electronic] entertainment…. And yet, as historians of mass literacy have shown, our indiscriminate faith in the act of reading would, not so long ago, have seemed gloriously insane.
The idea that reading is always good makes about as much sense as saying you can eat and drink whatever you feel like. Our society worries a lot about physical health and beauty. But it often neglects the sources of mental and emotional delusion. Brottman doesn’t even dwell on some of the more obvious problem areas of recent literature. She is discussing the broader issues of fantasy and escapism.
In the 19th century, novel reading was considered an especially inappropriate pastime for well-bred young girls . . . . [I]t was feared that young ladies who read romantic novels would be deeply disillusioned by the bitter realities of marriage.
She seems to have had similar experiences with those same Victorian novels, like Jane Eyre , which left her waiting in vain for Mr. Rochester.
Well, it didn’t happen. Nobody ever asked for my hand in marriage. Nobody even called me on the phone. I was caught in a vicious self-perpetuating cycle: The more real life disappointed me, the more I buried myself in books; and the longer I spent reading, the more remote grew the possibility of actual escape.
As a teenager, my literary opiate was science fiction. Though I still enjoy the genre, it nevertheless seems remarkable that people’s views on contemporary issues can be shaped by pure fantasy. The problem is not with books per se. Whether it’s romance as defined by doomed lovers like Catherine and Heathcliff or the remote possibility of extraterrestrial lifeforms or faster-than-light travel, there is the persistent human temptation to ignore the world around us. In that respect, books are no worse (and no better) than other forms of escapism. As Samuel Johnson said, “A book should teach us to enjoy life, or to endure it.”