‘Much learning doth make thee mad’! Beware the Bibliophile

‘Much learning doth make thee mad’ — Acts of the Apostles (p. 132)

Foolish beyond belief ‘are those who strive to in eternal fame by issuing books’ — In Praise of Folly, Erasmus (p. 132)

‘Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race … The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.” — Disraeli, in his early novel, Lothair (p. 148)

Bibliomania: A Tale, Gustave Flaubert, 1837
Bibliomania: A Tale, Gustave Flaubert, 1837


When I first read Roy Porter’s essay, Reading: A Health Warning, I played along with its tongue-in-cheek style, but when I paused to look up and scan the Riff Raff that lurked about the public library, and thought back to the first day I arrived in London, I could not so easily laugh off the ‘quaint’ 17th/18th and 19th c. notions equating reading with madness, medical maladies, and death. That first day, I was set upon by Popeye, a Mad Monk proselytizing for the Lord, reciting verbatim an entire booklet of his poems, and ranting about the lovely days he spent in prison getting ‘serviced’, and about his invitation to dine with the Queen and present his designs for affordable and transportable housing.

Here in the central library, the skidders and pedophiles can lounge without being prodded by the cops. Still, they move. Between noisy sleeping and tubercular coughing spells, they shuffle around like patients in a lunatic asylum – methodically, in easily identifiable patterns that help them hold their worlds together. At the downtown liquor store, management has a 10ft. rule (15ft. for the real ‘special’ ones) for these fellas. Day after day, they spin their unique patterns throughout the store, and for all their unpredictability, they are relatively unpredictable. But, I digress.

Reading addles the brain

The situation got worse as books multiplied. As early as 1680, Leibniz was voicing anxiety about the ‘horrible mass of books which keeps on growing’, so that eventually ‘the disorder with become insurmountable’. (p.141)

“no place affords a more stroking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; for who can see the wall crouded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation …’ — Samuel Johnson (p. 141)

The inevitable result of excessive study was that you blew a fuse.

“… he laid so many books upon his head that his brains could not move” (p. 141)

“What wild desires, what restless torments seize,

The Hapless man, who feels the book-disease,” – Manchester physician John Farriar, in his early 19th c poem, Bibliomania.

By the 19th c., the disorder was endemic. (p. 141)

“… Beware of the bibliomanie” — Lord Chesterfield warned his son. (p. 141)

This is priceless. Cervantes explains how his hero Don Quixote, started his career of tilting at windmills:

“… this gentleman … gave himself up to the reading of books of knight errantry; … So odd and foolish, indeed, did he become on this subject that he sold many acres of cornland to buy these books … [and] … brought home every one he could get.

“… 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. In fact, now that he had utterly wrecked his reason he fell in the strangest fancy that ever a madman had in the whole world. He thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the sates, to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures.” (p. 141)

On Reading and Asylums

On visiting Bethlem Hospital in 1786, the German novelist Sophie von la Roche found an unnamed man, doubtless a historian, ‘in the lowest cell, with books all around him’, an evident diagnosis of madness. (p. 143)

She also met Margaret Nicholson, George III’s would-be assassin, sitting reading Shakespeare. King George, when recovering from his bout of madness was given a copy of Shakespeare’s King Lear to read by Dr. Francis Willis – an unsuspecting inflammatory gesture.

Mr. and Mrs. Epps, visiting Ticehurst asylum in Sussex in 1839, came across a certain Joshua Mantell. They found him seated in a large, comfortable room, by a good fire, with his books and papers about him. They had a long spirited conversation about botany and book he was set to publish. The Eppses were later told that he was suffering from delusions of authorship. (p. 143)

At West Riding asylum at Wakefield, medical superintendent Charles Caesar Corsellis compiled in 1839 a table of aetologies on insanity, based on 20 years of admissions. Twenty-one men had been admitted under the heading: ‘Study’, while one woman had been admitted due to ‘Reading Plays, Novels &c’.

At the Gloucester asylum, one Sarah Oakey, a laundress from Cheltenham, was admitted in 1826 from melancholia ‘Supposed to be brought on by reading novels’.

The next year at Nottingham asylum, John Daft ‘was brought 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’.

An then there was the Revd William Thomson, admitted to the Glasgow Royal in 1817. “…for 10 months previous to his illness, he had been engaged in publishing a book’.

Worse still, William Masterson was admitted to the same institution in 1831, on account of ravings ‘on syllogisms’. (p. 143)

Dire warnings of sexual hysteria and some odd cures

Novel-reading among fashionable young women in the 18th c was said to lead to hysteria and the vapours.

Above all, they were sources of vicarious sexual arousal. Hence, ‘you will understand how possible it is that a variety of prevalent indispositions as fluor albus, tendency to miscarriage, and even a dropsy of the ovarium, may be caused from the furniture of a circulating library.’ (p. 144) A decline might be brought on by solitary reading – what Byron called ‘frigging of the mind’ led to self-abuse, which would in time grow addictive and possibly fatal.

In 1904, Sir George Henry Savage, treated Virginia Woolf by banishing her from London (where all her books and papers resided). He believed reading was one of the causes of female insanity. (p. 146)

To Theophilus Hyslop, Savage’s successor at Bethlem Hospital, the cardinal danger was female emancipation. “The departure of woman from her natural sphere to an artificial one involves a brain struggle which is deleterious to the virility of the race … the higher women strive to hold the torch of intellect, the dimmer the rays of light for the vision of their progeny.’ (p. 146)

Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy, urged that reading be rationed: ‘Not less than one hour after dinner must you touch a book … [and] at eight o’clock all reading and writing must cease.’ (p. 145)

Lord Baden-Powell advocated scouting for boys, stressing that self-abuse ‘often ends in a lunatic asylum’. (p. 145)

One of the most famous anti-masturbation advocates of the 1890s was John Harvey Kellogg of Kellogg’s cereal. He may rightly be considered one of the charlatans that Brame refers to above, because he made a lot of money through his sanatarium and anti-masturbatory Corn Flakes cereal. See Tine Hreno’s blog, Writers in London in the 1890s, for more of these ‘scientific advancements’.

Other Victorians developed and tried mechanical anti-masturbation appliances, such as the four-pointed urethral ring (p. 145)

You don’t want to put on one these rings, so put down that book!


Reading: A Health Warning, Roy Porter, in Medicine, Mortality and the Book Trade, edited by Robin Myers
The Charlatans of the 1890s Anti-Masturbation Movement
, Writers in London in the 1890s, Wednesday, December 3, 2014, Tine Hreno, at http://1890swriters.blogspot.ca/2014/12/the-charlatans-of-1890s-anti.html



Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s