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Is Reading an Addiction?

A search for “reading addiction” turns up over 80,000 hits on Google. A scan suggests that the vast majority use this term ironically. They are boasting about their obsession with books and reading. This addiction is a badge of honour, a status symbol.

What about real addiction?

Much has been written about Internet addiction. According to Jerald Block (“Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction”, 2008), South Korea is a country that takes this affliction very seriously and estimates that over 210,000 of its citizens are affected. For China the number is 10 million.

Block wants Internet addiction formalized with an entry in DSM-V (the new edition of the standard classification of mental disorders expected in 2013). He outlines the key characteristics:

“1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.”

Excessive use, withdrawal, and negative repercussions (“tolerance” sounds a bit like impatience or anxiety); this sounds like many of the readers I know. Is reading an addiction or, more pointedly, a pathology?

Just think of those reading a book while walking or standing in an elevator (although perhaps this latter is as much social distancing as reading addiction). And what about those people reading their smartphones while driving? This is an extraordinarily dangerous habit (compulsion?) yet all too common. These people have made a clear choice of reading over safety.

What we call addiction with respect to TV, gambling, gaming, or the Internet is not so described for reading. How is compulsive gambling (in-person or online) different than compulsive reading? Outcome? Social value? Risk? Benefit? Or simply the odds of good things happening (which, admittedly, are far better for reading than gambling).

Explicit concerns about reading were much more common in the 18th and 19th centuries (when mass literacy was emerging as a result of improved educational practices and the availability of cheap reading materials increased). Many saw reading as a threat to children; reading was to be discouraged and children to be focused elsewhere.

As Arnim Polster (“On the Abuse of Reading”, 1993) notes “by the 1780s, the phenomenon of children reading had come to be viewed by many German pedagogues with anxiety, if not outright alarm”. Polster quotes Johann Gottfried Hoche (1762-1836):

“compulsive reading is a foolish and harmful abuse of an otherwise good thing, truly a great evil, as contagious as the yellow fever in Philadelphia.”

The “contagion” analogy is worth considering. The implication is not simply that obsessive (or unsupervised) reading is damaging but that the example of doing it, the public activity of this act, will lead others (infect them) to behave the same way. Is reading a disease?

Our concepts of addiction or dysfunction are clearly culturally shaped. We are comfortable talking about these in relation to TV, video games, the Internet, and many other things but reading is absolved of this.

Consider, for example, the way the medical community perceives hyperlexia.

Hyperlexia is the ability of a child to read very early and to become obsessed with words. It is often, although not always, associated with autism. This has lead to an academic debate about whether it is a “disability” or a “superability” (Grigorenko, “Hyperlexia”, 2003).

Just like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, we are so immersed in a literate environment (Ong would say “prison”) that we cannot easily question or assess its impacts (or constraints) on us. We are happily addicted. Our obsession is a mark of distinction. We are blind to the possibility of a future beyond literacy, beyond our drug.

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