Reading novels is good for you. This is the current wisdom, at least. A 2013 study by the New School for Social Research in New York City attempted to prove that reading passages by Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis had an immediate impact on participants’ ability to identify the emotions of others. Another, at Emory University in Georgia, found that reading novels had the potential to cause heightened ‘connectivity’ in the brain. A third, at the University of Sussex, made the case for books being one of life’s most effective stress-relievers.
While we might point to violent video games or sexually explicit films as potentially dangerous and corrupting influences on tender or vulnerable minds, the novel is treated as uplifting and salutary, regardless of its content: a kale smoothie for the soul. When we do talk about books being ‘dangerous’, it is usually with a knowing nod and a wink: and the implication is that those of us in the know know better. In a recent Guardian interview, the controversial British writer Melvin Burgess insists that ‘like most “dangerous” books, [Junk, his novel for young adults] is in fact a threat only to people who are themselves dangerous – people who want to control others’. Any suggestion that a book might be dangerous is, in other words, only ever a manifestation of bigotry or fear.