Reading should not carry a health warning

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 6.20.15 PMThis is probably the first time in history that young readers themselves are demanding protection from the disturbing content of their course texts, yet reading has been seen as a threat to mental health for thousands of years. In accordance with the paternalistic ethos of ancient Greece, Socrates said that most people couldn’t handle written text on their own. He feared that for many – especially the uneducated – reading could trigger confusion and moral disorientation unless the reader was counselled by someone with wisdom. In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, written in 360 BCE, Socrates warned that reliance on the written word would weaken individuals’ memory, and remove from them the responsibility of remembering. Socrates used the Greek word pharmakon – ‘drug’ – as a metaphor for writing, conveying the paradox that reading could be a cure but most likely a poison. Scaremongers would repeat his warning that the text was analogous to a toxic substance for centuries to come. —Aeon