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Who can forget the terrible climax of Howards End, when Leonard Bast is killed by a deluge of books? Death by books holds a horrible irony for poor Bast, as he had thought they were his salvation, seeking to escape ‘the abyss’ of poverty by reading Ruskin in the evening and trying to impress the middle-class Schlegel sisters by listing his favourite titles. Try as he might, he can only fail, as E.M. Forster shows books to be extremely treacherous: they don’t save Leonard Bast, they kill him.
The power of books is all too often lauded as a healing force, rather than something potentially lethal. The University of Warwick has just launched a free online course, ‘Reading for Wellbeing’, to explore ‘how poems, plays and novels can help us cope with times of deep emotional strain’. Rachel Kelly wrote movingly about ‘how words healed me’ — how poetry eased her depression — in her memoir Black Rainbow. At Alain de Botton’s School of Life, a ‘bibliotherapist’ will prescribe you a ‘novel cure’ to ease any ailment. But if we are to consider books as medicine, we must consider them as poison too.
When Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774, more than 2,000 young male readers reportedly committed suicide, inspired by the protagonist’s example. So extreme was this mania that 200 years later, an American sociologist coined ‘The Werther Effect’ to describe the way that suicide can be contagious, if it is dramatically and widely publicised. The world’s second most popular suicide location is Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, where a young lover commits suicide in the novel Kuroi Jukai (‘The Black Sea of Trees’) by Seicho Matsumoto.
So far, so dangerous, and we haven’t even touched on crime fiction. In Australia, American Psycho is considered so noxious that it can only be sold shrinkwrapped, to over-18s. Such restrictions can only do so much. Theodore Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, who killed three people and injured 23 by posting homemade bombs to addresses he associated with modern technology, was obsessed with the work of Joseph Conrad — especially The Secret Agent, in which an academic turned anarchist attempts to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. To think that a 1907 novel could inspire terrorist attacks three-quarters of a century later is a horrifying example of a book’s latent power. As Antony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, wrote regarding the potential harmful influence of literature: ‘I begin to accept that, as a novelist, I belong to the ranks of the menacing.’
Even the most mundane reading can be menacing in its power. When your head is in a novel, it is all too easy to indulge that which society proscribes. On reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, for instance, I don’t empathise with the young, naive and wholly good protagonist, as she struggles to cope with being married to Max de Winter at Manderley. Instead I am seduced by the ghost of Rebecca, far more powerful, even from beyond the grave, than the new Mrs de Winter will ever be. The allure of this mysterious adulteress can be felt in something so minor as her handwriting — ‘black and strong’ with her ‘tall and sloping R’ — and certainly at her boathouse, where she had her way with whomever she desired. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who, after reading Rebecca, somewhat longed for a boathouse of my own.
Whenever I read Pride and Prejudice, I admire Elizabeth Bennet for her wit, but part of me loves silly Lydia Bennet all the more. She has all the fun — flirting with officers, dancing non-stop, eloping. We are supposed to disapprove of her, certainly for running off with Wickham and thereby nearly ruining her family, but I can’t help but think lucky Lydia ends up with rather a good deal.
Or, less frivolously, there is Thomas Cromwell. The staggering success of Wolf Hall showed how much those of us more used to supermarket aisles than the corridors of power relished the chance to enter the consciousness of this arch politician. We were all hooked on the intrigue, the twists and manipulations — even murder — that Cromwell managed with such Machiavellian aplomb.
We revel in the danger of books. They can inspire all manner of sins and their power is far too great to be diminished to neat prescriptions and tidy remedies. Underestimate them at your peril.