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An 18th-century moral panic sounds surprisingly familiar

An 18th-century moral panic sounds surprisingly familiar

The novel was once deemed as damaging as screen time is today

The novel was once deemed as damaging as screen time is today

Tom Standage | December/January 2020

Today parents worry that smartphones and screen time are causing their children to waste hours on the sofa drifting off into another world. In the 18th century, the same reactions were prompted by another compelling new form of media: the novel.

The mania, and associated panic, began in 1740 with the phenomenal popularity of Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela”. Novels were typically published in a handy duodecimo size, similar to that of to a modern smartphone, which meant they could be taken anywhere and read while doing other things.

Critics worried that novel-readers would lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and emulate the behaviour of the characters they read about. Fiction was thought to be particularly dangerous to women, distracting them from more useful activities, filling their heads with unrealistic fancies and making them more likely to run off with inappropriate suitors. But young men were at risk too: Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, a smash hit of the 1770s which ends with the suicide of its male protagonist, was blamed for a spate of copycat deaths and banned in several countries.

What could be done? In 1778, Vicesimus Knox, an essayist, suggested banning novels and encouraged people to read “true histories” instead. A writer in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1789 proposed charging a “sin tax” on novels (like those on alcohol and cigarettes today). Taxing them – but not “books of real utility” – would bring in valuable government revenue and encourage better reading habits.

To modern eyes it seems obvious that the panic over novels was an expression of other concerns: that greater literacy would expose young people (particularly women) to dangerous ideas and might prompt them to challenge the authority of their elders or the rigidity of the social order. Modern concerns about video games, social media or excessive screen time presumably have similar origins – and may one day seem as quaint as the idea that novels could lead their readers astray. The fact that it proved baseless is worth remembering next time you’re tempted to tell your screen-obsessed teenager to go and read a book instead.