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World Book Day: Is reading good for our health?

Posted on 1 March 2018

Georgia Ingles, PhD student from the University of York’s Centre for Early Modern Studies, discusses the various ideas behind therapeutic reading:

Reading and health was a significant topic in the 16th and 17th century

“Is reading good for our health? Cressida Downing, co-founder of the Reading Retreat, certainly thinks so. 

“Downing’s retreat is one of many recent schemes created in the belief that reading can have a demonstrably positive effect on well-being: from the School of Life’s Bibliotherapy service, which provides ‘literary prescriptions’ tailored to the needs of the reader-client to the community-driven reading groups of The Reader Organisation, a charity working within criminal justice system and mental health settings, whose sessions attest to the ameliorative effects of shared reading.  

“While this attentiveness to the recuperative possibilities of reading feels like a distinctly contemporary concern, the question of the relationship between reading and health was particularly prevalent in 16th and 17th century medical discourse, which exhibited a fascination with - and frequent anxiety over – reading’s capacity to effect transformations on the body as well as the mind. 

Cause and cure    

“In early modern England, reading was envisaged as both a cause of, and cure for, particular maladies: it was thought to overheat the humours; weaken the stomach; disrupt digestion; dry out the brain; induce gout; and “breede the stone” - marble-sized growths in the bladder that prevented urination. 

“At the same time, however, reading was believed to enliven the animal spirits, on which movement, thought, and sensation depended; dispel melancholy; and even serve as an effective means of losing weight - in his 1547 Breviary of Health, Andrew Boorde suggested that reading, like physical exercise, could produce an excess of heat capable of diminishing the “groseness” of the body. 

“So whether you’re trying to cure a bad case of the blues, or avoid going to the gym altogether, so long as you don’t mind running the risk of drying out your brain, a book might be just the remedy you’re after.”

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