Can Reading be Harmful?

Reading is supposed to broaden the mind. Reading allows a person to put their feet in the characters shoes and hopefully, be able to do that in real life too. There are plenty of articles about the benefits of reading fiction or why you should date somebody who reads or the ability to empathize when readers start young. What about the harm of reading? Does it exist?

In two days, Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie will be released in theaters around the United States and I’m sure the movie will be a box office hit. Those who got through the book will be excited to see their imagination blossom on screen and those who didn’t read the book (but wanted to) will only have to set aside 125 minutes of their precious time and be visually assaulted without the need to read through Ana’s eyes and will also not have to cringe every time “oh my” is used. Unless they’re going to keep that too. We can hope not.

I’m not going to try to make this a complaint about Fifty Shades because for one there are so many other blogs and forums you can read about the complaints, and two I liked it my first read through. Despite the cringe-worthy prose and complete lack of reality (you don’t have an email address but you got a job out of college being an English major? Really.) I still liked it for the simple fact that it was escapism and took roughly three days to get through the entire series. I felt no more educated by the end of it, but I also didn’t feel horrified.

I also read a lot. I’m not going on about how great I am. I read some simple books but I try to add in books that truly open my understanding of myself or the world. When reading might become harmful is when it only includes the “escapist” books.

We have all heard the arguments about Fifty Shades. “He raped her!” “She signed a consent form!” and on and on and on. My opinion is more on the fact that the whole story is so unbelievable that we shouldn’t have this argument. She’s a 22 year old virgin who managed to get a job at a publishing company (not as a receptionist) right out of college with her English degree. This does not happen. Of course, being a virgin and obviously not able to use technology (why is this a thing?), I don’t think she had enough information to give informed consent, but either way, this book is realistic enough to take seriously.

And yet….

And yet, we worry about how people are taking books like this with simplified plots and paper-thin characters. Despite readers calling it out as horrible or simply, escapism, we worry that it’s affecting our communities. It is possible for reading to be harmful.

It is one thing to simply read for escapism, but the problem comes when people who don’t read often and desire somebody like Christian Grey and even worse, want to be like Anastasia Steele (how horrible are those last names?!). This sounds a lot like victim blaming, so let me explain.

I’m not a feminist who consistently thinks women should be abstained from taking responsibility for their actions. Trust me, I think Christian is manipulative and I don’t care that he has all of these childhood issues because he should have had some of those solved before pursuing a relationship with a girl as ‘vanilla’ as Ana. Yet, I still worry that Ana, along with Bella, might be seen as role model. Girls who do not inform themselves and rely on information from the guy who’s telling them what they should be doing, who only have knowledge in cooking for their boyfriends, who never learned how to stand on their own two feet, and who only show their ability to stand up for themselves to protect their fetuses. I don’t think this is role model material and most people know this. Most.

There are those who don’t and this is a simplified example of the problems reading can bring to those who don’t read widely. What about those who only read racist stories? What about those who are only allowed to read from a strict approved book list and even though Fifty Shades would most likely not be on there, what other books are being left out?

Obviously my title was an attention grabber. I don’t think reading can be harmful because I think reading is the best thing a person can do. It’s when people read narrowly and refuse to try other books. It’s when a person disregards others comments on the book and don’t see the problems that may stem from the literature. I always try to read the reviews of books after I read them to see what people are saying. I try to make myself (and usually don’t succeed) read scholarly articles on the books I have read to see what people believe is the affect of that book on readers and society.

What book has made you question yourself? What book makes you consider censorship?