Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
by Frank Furedi (Bloomsbury, £20)
Reading is a risky business. Or at least that is how critics in the 18th century once saw it when they described the dangers of bilbiomania—an affliction caused by the over-consumption of books. Packed with a wealth of literary titbits, including quotations from, among others, Geoffrey Chaucer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Anthony Trollope (some are more relevant than others), this comprehensive and erudite study is a love letter to literacy.
Frank Furedi charts painstakingly the changing attitudes to reading through the centuries from Cicero’s attempts to draw up a hierarchy of readers, to the democratising impact of the printing press and the embrace of populist literature in the form of the novel. His position is clear: he is a defender of the reading faith.
He treats with disdain several popular cultural theories that claim that the internet reduces our attention spans. Instead he suggests that societies address why it is that people seek distraction from their everyday lives. Also refuted is the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” an argument advanced by the Danish academic Thomas Pettitt that the age of the book was a 500-year cultural blip, and the digital era has sparked a return to a more collective form of oral communication. Put simply—who needs books? We all do, says Furedi. The art of reading has endured through two millennia, despite being much maligned, due to the joy and enlightenment it engenders. This book is a timely reminder of that.