There has been some suggestion recently (and if I weren’t so technologically inept I’d provide a hyperlink; find the link below instead) that there is a link between mental illness and the reading of, for example, Tolkien, Martin, Pratchett, Rowling.
The writer, a teacher, is perhaps in a position to notice the effects of reading such works on the behaviour and mental well-being of young people. His school caters for 7-18 year olds. He suggests the teenagers should be reading traditional and classical works: Keats, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, Shelley and other writers who shy away from “dark, demonic literature, carefully sprinkled with ideas of magic, of control and of ghostly and frightening stories”. I expect he’d like them to read the Bible too (I mean nothing disparaging, I think it’s an excellent read. Quite amusing in some places, and just as full of sex and violence as A Song of Ice and Fire if that’s what you’re after. Or Shakespeare’s plays). I’m going to ignore the obvious problems with his preferred reading for young people with regard to the dangers of Popular Literature – that doesn’t answer his argument re: mental disorders. I wonder who else he might suggest as suitable alternatives – the Brontës? Walter Scott? George Eliot? Lord Byron? Edmund Spencer?
I wonder also what is recommended for the younger readers. Enid Blyton? Roald Dahl? Janet and Allen Ahlberg? All those stories involving talking toys? Perhaps the Magic Schoolbus series?
He doesn’t call for banning those books he considers damaging, merely for age-limits, by the looks of things. Wait until you’re old enough, he seems to be saying, Wait until you can separate Fact from Fiction. When you know Magic doesn’t exist and can’t be conned into believing.
Which I think is a shame. Childhood – right up to the age of majority (18 in new money, 21 if you’re old-fashioned like me) – is a time for Magic and Faeries and True Love and all sorts of other imaginings. (This isn’t to say that Adults can’t read such books, by the way.) Real Life is dark and dangerous enough. Reading all those stories wherein Good always (or nearly always, probably best not read Martin if that’s what you want) triumphs is important for hope that not-so-good things can change. And it’s best to read them when you’re young and relatively pure of heart – not when you’re old and cynical. You’ll learn that Life isn’t fair soon enough. As for the Adults reading them, it’s good to remember that optimism, and the hope.
To be honest, I think there are more pressing dangers to mental well-being than magic and ghosts. Perhaps he should be more worried about the potential ill-effects of Internet-Life, bullying (physical, verbal, and cyber), and stress caused by the pressures to conform socially and excel academically, regardless of ability. Worrying about potential careers while choosing which subjects to study, aged fifteen. Far more damaging than imagining oneself to be the hero of an invented world, leading a small band of rebels (with Right on their side, naturally) to victory against over-whelming odds. Defeating the bullies. Escaping school and exams.
If anything, reading unreal stories offer an escape from those things, away from Real Life, and away from naval-gazing. You don’t think about yourself while you read, not if it’s a good book. And what you read shapes who you are and who you become, with any luck, helping you to become comfortable in your own skin. How frequently are the heroes and heroines of these stories the characters who conform?
As for the link between reading fantasy and mental illness – perhaps there is one; I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read the studies. But perhaps it’s like the link between mathematics and schizophrenia. Perhaps we should avoid studying maths until we’re old enough…
To anyone who reads this: Read everything and anything. I don’t care how old or young you are, read whatever you like, whether it’s too old, too young or just right. A tip for finding new books: If someone in Authority has condemned it for its ideas, it’s probably a right good yarn. Not always (I wasn’t terribly taken by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, film or novel), but more often than not. So read them, and make your own mind up.
Finally: Magic does exist (how else do you explain all those wonderful books?), and I believe in Pixies and Faeries and Dragons and everything else Fantastical. I’m happy in my world, where they exist. It’s nicer than his world where they don’t.