Why you should care
Because too much of anything can be bad.
Go ahead, crack the spine. Run your hand up and down the page. Smell the binding. You know you want to. It’s the intoxicating smell of a new book, like heroin if we financed public institutions to allow you to borrow as much heroin as you wanted and bring it back when you were done with it. Also, if it didn’t kill you and you couldn’t become physically dependent on it. There is a German word for that sweet, sweet book addiction.
Lesesucht: an addiction to reading
Shockingly, that’s not the only word the Germans came up with for this particular dependence. There’s also Lesewut (reading rage) and Leserei (reading mania). They all mean the same thing — and they weren’t invented to say anything nice. In fact, Lesesucht and its synonyms came to be in the late 1700s, when a boom in literacy brought on a wave of establishment disapproval. “Before, people read religious texts and practical books,” explains Frank Furedi, author of Power of Reading. “Now they were reading literature.” Establishment minds worried about the tendency of young women to read romance novels and of the underclass’ potential to stay idle while reading novels all day. Disapproval rained down from all over the political spectrum — left-wing commentators worried that the masses were reading trash instead of philosophy, and right-wing thinkers decried the abandonment of the Bible for secular texts.
The decrying of reading mania was in itself a sort of mania — a classic moral panic. Considering that modern moral panics about reading tend to focus on how young people aren’t reading enough— what, Twitter doesn’t count? — it seems quaint that so many people were so concerned about young people ruining their minds with books. But it happened: Countless pearls were clutched over a supposed international epidemic of suicides sparked by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the hero offs himself over unrequited love. In fact, Furedi says, almost all the articles written about this panic track back to a single British case with very sketchy details. Still, knockoffs of Werther’s clothes were banned, just in case.
And while this has a retro feel, it’s still happening — and the panic about the pollution of young minds remains focused on young people and women. “In the late 1700s, books were the new media form, and people weren’t really sure about them,” says Dr. Lena Heilmann, an independent scholar of 18th-century German literature. Today’s parallel wouldn’t be books but rather the fear of violent video games or Snapchat. However, the concern over content, one that seems to balloon when female readers are involved, is there too — witness editorials worried about women being drawn into abusive relationships because they read Twilight. In the 1700s, Heilmann says, “They were worried that women would identify too much with the characters, lose themselves in the novels and become very emotionally involved.” Holy déjà vu, Batman.
Despite Lesesucht’s overblown origins, there’s room for reclamation here. After all, the women of 1790s Germany kept on reading their romance novels, and you can keep reading your One Direction fanfiction. If someone tries to stop you, tell them you can’t control yourself: You have an addiction, and they don’t make rehab to wean you off a really good story.