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"Dark books:
What’s more wholesome than reading? Yet books wield a dangerous power: the best erode self, infecting readers with ideas" by Tara Isabella Burton


In his condemnatory tract Popular Amusements (1869), the American clergyman Jonathan Townley Crane cautioned his flock against reading novels: ‘novel-readers spend many a precious hour in dreaming out clumsy little romances of their own, in which they themselves are the beautiful ladies and the gallant gentlemen who achieve impossibilities…’ only to find themselves ‘merged in the hero of the story’, losing the sense of who they really are. ...

And it’s not just toxic notions of gender that novels have the power to reinforce. Historically speaking, control of narrative and language has been inextricable from notions of political and cultural control. The power of the writer is to decide which characters, which worlds, he treats as fully human, and which as reducible and other.

In a 2009 TEDx talk, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlighted the dangers of the ‘one story’, explaining how she, as a Nigerian, found her self-understanding dominated by collective narratives – the ‘single story of Africa’ – in a manner not so different from Cordelia’s possession by Johannes. As a child, Adichie wrote exactly the kinds of stories she had access to:

"All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out… I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to."

To be a fully formed character, in the stories Adichie read, was to be white and British; the story of Africa, by contrast, was a story ‘of negatives, of difference, of darkness’.

Here, too, the act of reading is an act of experiencing another kind of danger: in this case, the danger to the self posed by writerly erasure. ‘Like our economic and political worlds,’ Adichie says, ‘stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’ ...

At its most fundamental level, to read is to put our selves at risk, to make ourselves vulnerable by welcoming the presence of an other into our psychic space. This can be a radically transformative experience, challenging us to reformulate our own self-understanding. But at worst, we become like the dinner-party guests in The Torture Garden or Don Juan ­– our ‘possession’ by a storyteller awakening our inner violence. Or else we become like Johannes’ Cordelia, the books we read reinforcing existing societal threats to our being. Either way, the act of reading is an act of acceptance of power: a power that, if not god-like, is nevertheless – within the sphere of the text – absolute.

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