I have mention in previous blogs that, when at home, I live a lot of my life with a backdrop of the BBC Radio 4 station playing (though I cannot write with the radio on, nor with music on – another topic). On the Woman’s Hour programme yesterday, one of the guests mentioned her ‘addiction’ to reading. She was most specific about the use of the word, in illustration claiming to have had nothing to read one holiday but an old book on etiquette, which she had to read and then re-read in the absence of other literary matter.
I cannot locate what such an addiction, if indeed it exists, would be called in English. We have the terms bibliophilia or bibliophilism, of course, meaning the love of books, a bibliophile (or bookworm) being an individual who adores and frequently reads books. However, that is not the same thing.
Beyond the English language, I understand the Germans have the word ‘Lesesucht’ to describe addiction to reading, or ‘reading mania’, but I don’t know whether this is used in a serious, negative way—or even commonly still used at all.
The notion of Lesesucht appears to come from the time of the early novel, an 18th and 19th century fear that too much reading might be bad for one (particularly impressionable young women – wouldn’t you have guessed it?) The idea was reading might become too much of a distractor (from the more important business of keeping men happy perhaps). Or exposure to ‘romance’ novels, for instance, might over-stimulate the senses in most inappropriate ways.
We might still be concerned about children reading the ‘wrong sort of thing’ (whatever that means) or reading ‘too much’ (i.e. rather than socialising or participating in a physical activity) but by adulthood, these worries seem to disappear. Those of us who were the ‘nerd’ at school, preferring the company of a book to playground games, are absolved.
Addiction is the state of being physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, says the Oxford English Dictionary. We may joke about being a reading addict, but do we mean it in the sense of something negative that we would wish to be broken off? (I am writing with reference to books here, fiction or fact, in print or electronically delivered, not text on social media, which is a somewhat separate matter).
The OED also offers a more informal use of ‘addict’, i.e. ‘An enthusiastic devotee of a specified thing or activity,’ in the sense we might speak of an addiction to shoes, a particular TV show, and so on. Indeed, a quick search into whether reading addiction is a genuine problem turns up largely humorous (and sometimes humblebragging) references by ‘self-confessed’ bookworms, none of whom appear in a hurry to get treatment.
Many of these ‘addicts’ do appear to be non-selective readers. “I’m not a reading snob. I’m just as likely to be reading a paranormal vampire romance by Kresley Cole as a historical epic by double-Booker-winner Mantel,” points out journalist Amanda Hooten in an article on ‘going cold turkey’ from her addiction written for the Sydney Morning Herald last year. She goes on to admit that “Reading was my fix,” though in context, it seems a pretty harmless one.
So maybe one sign of such dependency is, as the opening example suggests, when we stop discriminating—when we’ll read anything rather than have nothing textual to pass the time with, regardless of its quality or our interest in it. Reading and especially re-reading something we would class as not very good, or, at least, of zero interest to us personally, can be considered a waste of time, if nothing else.
I do recognise reading may become something beyond pleasure, offering a sedative effect—a type of tranquilliser, an adult version of sucking on a dummy (pacifier) to soothe oneself, perhaps. And I guess this compulsion may become a problem where it gets in the way of the rest of your life, displaces other activities that need to get done, or affects your health, relationships, and so on.
So if I want to stay in and read my next book rather than go out for the evening, is that to the detriment of social relationships? If I am unable to put a book down at 2 a.m. in the morning, with the alarm set for 5.30, is that dangerous to my health? Perhaps if this becomes a repeated pattern, I suppose, or becomes a way of avoiding the world (as often seems the case with other ‘drugs’).
True also, if I cannot resist finishing a few more pages (and then the a few more) before I get on with my paid work, or put reading before my children’s immediate needs, I can see that would become an issue.
Perhaps it is because we are so used to regarding reading as positive, life enhancing, pleasurable, that I really cannot make up my mind whether ‘reading addiction’ is an actual and serious condition.
Is there such a thing as reading too much? Is ‘reading addiction’ a genuine problem?
BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour podcasts https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00050ph
Amanda Hooten, ‘Going cold turkey on my reading addiction is a story in itself’ in The Sydney Morning Herald, February 23 2018.