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Why Reading Is More Dangerous Than Smoking

Cropped photo by Tomas Petru via Flickr. Cropped image by Tomas Petru via Flickr.

In Francois Mauriac’s most famous novel Therese Desqueyroux, Bernard, the unloving husband who keeps the titular lady under house arrest after she attempts to murder him (I know, the plot is ridiculously French), exhibits an unexpected piece of common sense. He refuses to “place an order at the Bordeaux bookstore” for Therese, but he does “replenish her cigarette supply,” because Bernard knows what we have forgotten: Reading is far more dangerous than smoking.

The danger of reading lies not in its ability to enliven or sedate the reader (which is all that is at stake in smoking) but in its ability to change the reader. Bernard recognizes the danger of a book because he recognizes the danger of ideas. He complains of “the perils of an education such as Therese had received.”

Bernard’s fear of novelettes over cigarettes strikes the modern mind as strange because we have thrown out the baby, the bath water and the bath. In the last hundred years, the West has accepted the (perfectly reasonable) claim that the government shouldn’t censor books alongside the perfectly unreasonable claim that no books ever ought to be censored. It is one thing to say a government is incapable of carrying out some action; it is another to say the action never needs to be carried out at all.

You'll hear this unreasonable claim made everywhere the censoring of books is discussed. The Banned Books Week event and the Reading Rainbow  website both make this claim, but in a very odd context. The claim we should never ban books depends on the assumption that books are not dangerous and have never served to corrupt their readers. Oddly, as Helen Andrews points out, “this fallacy is most popular among those who praise the power of reading to broaden horizons and influence minds, as if that power could only ever be used for good.”

If any people knows about the potentially dangerous effects of reading, it is the French. When he assesses the Revolution, Voltaire is quite clear: “books did it all.” The drop of Gutenberg’s press preceded the drop of Robespierre’s guillotine. The streets flowed with blood because the book stands first flowed with ink.

In Mauriac’s novel (which I recommend for a rainy day), Bernard is easily the most uncaring and the least sympathetic character, but even he teaches wisdom. He knows the proportional dangers of smoking and reading. There is mild danger in the former, but extreme danger in the latter. A loose cigarette can burn down a forest; a loose book can burn down the world. 


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