Culture  /  Retrieval

Why Novels Will Destroy Your Mind

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, novels were regarded as the video games or TikTok of their age — shallow, addictive, and dangerous.

Every new form of entertainment brings a moral panic.

In recent years, parents and authority figures have freaked out over violent video games (they’ll make you a remorseless killer), casual video games (they’ll get you addicted and waste your time), or visual social-media like Tik Tok or Instagram (they’ll make you narcissistic), to pick just a few.

And hey, these critiques are always partly correct! Casual games really can be compulsive; game companies spend billions making sure of it. Social media, with its relentless casinofied mechanics of seduction, really can lure us in for hours of mindless scrolling. I’ve written for years about these problems.

But whenever I’m tempted to be a little too pessimistic about modern digital media, I spend some time leafing through the big media panics of the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, there was a new form of entertainment that was relentlessly blamed for driving society into the ditch. It was lurid, addictive, and mind-distorting. It turned young people into preening narcissists possessed of a delusional sense of grandiosity. It even made some kids into killers. Not least, it was a howling waste of time.

It was, of course, the novel.

A hot new pocket-size technology we can’t take our eyes off!

Back in the 1700s and 1800s, novels were becoming popular partly because of technological innovations. The price of paper was dropping, as was the price of printing, so books were more affordable. They were easier to carry around and read in private, because they were often printed in in pocket-size formats. Check out the page-layout below of two pages in Eliza Haywood’s 1751 novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless.

Each page is remarkably similar to the dimensions of a smartphone screen, isn’t it?

More importantly, novelists were writing the first stories about everyday people — and were writing them in the cadences of everyday language, not the veddy proper tones of the elites. Novelists also write a lot about love: Romance and “sentimental” novels were crammed with stolen glances and cross-class forbidden affairs. Readers ate them up.

But this boom in romance books, it turns out, drove parents and religious authority figures crazy. The reigning moral order of the day — in Europe as in a young America — was religious. Books about human emotions seemed trivial (compared to theological concerns) and idiotic: “Obscene and silly”, “execrable stuff”, and “amorous nonsense”, as one 1760 critic sniffed.

But the big problem was they deformed your mind! As critics argued .. .