Reading can be dangerous to your health. Just ask Emma Bovary

Miss French Provincial Page Turner herself was destroyed by the brain rot which is unchecked reading
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The Independent Online

Callooh! Callay! It's World Book Day. Or at least it was on Thursday. You must have noticed - pages falling out of the sky, libraries festooned with publishers' catalogues, writers on every corner, words flowering on wintry trees.

Callooh! Callay! It's World Book Day. Or at least it was on Thursday. You must have noticed - pages falling out of the sky, libraries festooned with publishers' catalogues, writers on every corner, words flowering on wintry trees.

As a writer of books myself, I am almost hysterically in favour of anything that ministers to their consumption. "Read, read you little bastards!" was one of my suggestions for a World Book Day slogan, the exhortation to be delivered by a masked flagellator sent to every school in the land. A proposal the organisers rejected, presumably on the grounds that "little bastards" contains too many syllables for the little bastards to read.

My other suggestion, also rejected, was for a poster campaign likening a book to a packet of cigarettes, with the words "Reading is Bad for Your Health!" or "Literacy Kills!" splashed in blood-red letters across the jacket. This would have had the advantage of enticing those children into reading who need to feel they're doing something dangerous with their time. It would also have had the advantage of being true.

Books are bad for us. Books are murder.

If you don't believe me, read what books say. Of whom was it written, that "Coming later to Sir Walter Scott, she conceived a passion for the historical, and dreamed about oak chests, guardrooms, minstrels... She studied descriptions of furniture in Eugène Sue, and sought in Balzac and George Sand a vicarious gratification of her own desires"? Scott and Sand and Balzac, note - literature!

So by modern standards, at least, we're talking about a rather classy reader here, a woman with more grown-up books under her belt by the age of 16 than most kids leaving school today will have read before they're 60.

"Elle avait lu Paul et Virginie, et elle avait rêvé la maisonette de bambous..." The French is a clue, if you didn't pick it up already in Balzac and George Sand. Elle avait rêvé ... Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, "of love and lovers, damsels in distress swooning in lonely lodges ... gloomy forests, troubles of the heart, vows, sobs, tears, kisses, rowing boats in the moonlight, nightingales in the groves, gentlemen brave as lions and gentle as lambs... weeping like fountains".

The very stuff of the imagination, members of the jury, the very education of the heart. And her name? And her fate? Emma Bovary, Miss French Provincial Page Turner herself, killed by the non-fulfilment of expectations planted in her heart by literature, choking on her own book-fuelled yearnings, destroyed by the brain rot which is unchecked reading!

The next time someone recommends you a book with the promise that you won't be able to put it down, just murmur "Madame Bovary" and walk away. And the next time you see a person devouring whole chapters on a bus or train, dreaming of rowing boats in the moonlight, and never once losing their eye from the page, tell them that you are being cruel only to be kind, and put their book down for them.

Unputdownability is not a virtue in a book. Any book worth reading will have you arguing with it by the bottom of page one, will have you reaching for your pencil and your notebook by page two, or will have you so astonished that you must set it aside every couple of minutes to consider what you've read. Anything less is vacancy not reading. What we call devouring books is no more than that torpor of the mind to which the world has given the name Bovarysme.

Flaubert was by no means the only novelist to write about the catastrophic effect of novels on readers ill-equipped to handle them. Fear of the disease of reading fuelled the 19th-century novel. Northanger Abbey is a relatively frolicsome satire on gothic reading (and make no mistake, all unchecked reading is gothic at heart), but by the time we get to Persuasion Jane Austen is in more sombre temper. Anne Elliott's remonstrance with Captain Benwick in the matter of his incontinent reading, making so bold as to "hope he did not always read poetry" as it was "the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely" should be an example to us all.

Never mind civil liberties. Never mind the reader's human right to read what and how he likes. If we care for those we love, it is our duty to save them from the perils of vacant irreflectiveness if we can.

Captain Benwick would have said he was "moved" by what he read. Being "moved" was big in the feeling-drenched late 18th and early 19th centuries, and is back with a vengeance. In the list of popularly inane words we use to describe books, "moving" is second only to "readable", and any civilised country would make calling a book "readable" a capital offence.

Readable! The instructions on a sauce bottle are readable! Mein Kampf, when you settle down to it, is readable. But "moving" is more insidious because it makes a heartless brute of those affected otherwise. It also presupposes the desirability of an emotion which most of the time is but a vicarious satisfaction of our own desires - the self walled up in a lonely lodge, weeping like a fountain.

In our pulpy times, the blurb "Didn't move me at all" would be praise indeed. Along with "I put it down every 30 seconds". And "So good I could barely read it". Because that surely is the truth of it. When a book is painful it is difficult, not easy to read. The last hours of Mme Bovary are so unremittingly agonising we approach the pages that tell of them with great reluctance. Ditto, in an entirely different spirit, the pages which deliver felicity to Anne Elliott at last. So much happiness, so nearly missed, hurts the heart, and we can barely entertain it.

Which is more or less how I feel about World Book Day. When books no long empower thought or sense, we might as well not have them.

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