The Allure of Reading

The different reasons as to why we are drawn to reading and writing and the pattern that has been seen throughout the centuries, especially in regards to women.

“Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for
novels […T]he depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by
these foolish, yet dangerous, books. I find them on the toilette of fashion,
and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who
lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter. From the mis-
tresses of nobles they descend to the mistresses of snuff-shops – from the
belles who read them in town, to the chits who spell them in the country. I
have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary
distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the
mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her
maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen.
I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in
the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemima” (Sylph no. 5, October 6, 1796, 36-37).

Books are incredible things. They are merely bundles of pages put together and filled with words, and yet they have the ability to draw mankind completely into the worlds they speak of. Back in the late 1700s, when novels first began to be popularized, society actually began to worry about the affect this new source of activity would have on people. Know as the Novel-Reading Panic of the 18th century, ‘Reading Fever’, or ‘Reading Rage’, many people began to spend much of their free time reading books instead of socializing with others. Women in particular were the ones most involved in this new art form, leading to many prominent figures worrying about their moral status, seeing it as an actual disease.

Even nowadays, such opinions are spoken of as many say that bookworms have their ‘head in the clouds’ or ‘always have their nose stuck in a book’. This brings images of the first song ‘Belle’ from Beauty and the Beast where the rest of the townsfolk marvel over the main character’s beauty, yet sigh and shake their heads over the fact that she spends her days reading and thinking rather than working and acting ‘as a woman should’. They worry that she is wasting her life away and missing her chance at finding a husband and starting a family. Of course, Belle could care less about such things as books have opened her mind to more than just a ‘provincial life’ as she sings in a later song. That is the problem, the townsfolk and citizens of the 18th century would claim. The premise of this movie perfectly fits this Panic in the 18th Century as women were so focused on learning and reading that they were not focusing enough on their civic duties. Even now, I see this in my own generation.

Today’s ‘new art form’ comes in the realm of fanfiction. Many in society roll their eyes and shake their heads at this realm of the internet, seeing it as ridiculous or a waste of time, yet the fact cannot be ignored that the majority of fanfiction writers are women between the age of 12-40 who honestly write some incredible books. I myself started reading and writing fanfiction when I was thirteen and it was where I truly found my love for writing; was where I practiced my skills in order to become a better writer. It has been a fundamental part of my life for over a decade and even now I find myself still reading fanfictions and often even writing them.

There are entire websites dedicated to this writing form, filled with millions and millions of stories of varying degrees of quality all readily available to be read. Each ‘fandom’ exists within its own realm with popular writers and troupes to each and there is even a way of speech that is shared between fanfiction writers in regards to words like ‘Fluff’, ‘Slash’, ‘AU’, ‘Drabble’, ‘Smut’, ‘Y/N’, etc.. Many look at these websites and see them as a depraved area or as something that should not be happening, and yet I have such a debt of gratitude to this ‘art form’. It truly was where I evolved as a writer and reader and influenced my understanding in ways that I can never truly explain or properly articulate.

I have found some incredibly astounding stories within these websites, stories that have changed my perspective and understanding of the world around me. Stories that delve into really complex situations like politics, war, death, racial inequality, family relationships, and toxic romances with such honesty and eloquence that I am left in complete and utter awe. But, there are also many stories that I shake my head at and scroll past, not wanting to even touch them with a ’39 and a half foot pole’. Like most things in the world, its a mixture of good and bad and it is up to the individual to choose which to partake in.

Yet, many in society only see the negatives of this area of the internet and fight against it, worrying about how these women spend their time, to the point that they even worry about their moral compass. Now, I will not deny that there are some truly awful things on these websites, but I do not think that that should be grounds for termination of the entire realm of online fanfiction. There are always going to be bad eggs out there, that is not something that we will ever be able to stop, yet it does not mean that we should stop or destroy the egg industry completely, to continue on the analogy. We just need to focus on what we can control and make good use of what good we can find and collect. We can even set up boundaries and rules in order to protect ourselves and others from what can be found on these websites. But, words of aggression and denouncement are not going to change anything.

It was much the same in the late 1700s, where women young and old read book after book after book about romance and society, completely absorbed in this new medium and society reacted. They cried out that women were being led astray, that they were completely disconnecting from reality and forgetting what truly mattered. And yet, it was from this ‘panic’, that many prominent female authors were born: Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, and hundreds of others. I have no doubt that the same will occur now in our time; that in the coming decades many female authors will appear with absolutely incredible books and series’ and we will have the realm of fanfiction to thank for their existence, for it is with fanfiction that people are able to freely explore various topics and ideas to their heart’s contents, able to expand upon the skills they already possess and present it to others in a ‘trial run’ of sorts, and are able to find out what truly speaks to them within the realm of reading and writing for themselves at the time and pace that they choose.

This is an essay by Ana Vogrinčic on the Novel-Reading Panic in 18th Century England in regards to it being seen as a moral issue. This is where I found the quote used at the beginning of this paper as she quotes it as well.