“The Solitary Vice,” for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the phrase, is the best-known Victorian euphemism for masturbation, a habit which, at the time, was widely believed to cause not only physical damage and moral decline in this life, but eternal damnation in the next.
This book is about a different solitary vice – the act of reading.
Though it may not be apparent at first, these two habits, masturbation and reading, have much in common. Both are most commonly carried out alone and in private, often in bed at night, just before sleep. Both are best enjoyed at leisure, since they tend to absorb your entire attention. Neither can be rushed, and both involve acts of fantasy and the imagination. Both can be so exciting that you can get addicted to them, and, like all addictions, they can be difficult to kick. Both may be lifelong practices; both are picked up in early childhood and continue well into old age. Both are habits that some people discover on their own, and others are introduced to, usually at school. Both customs are encouraged by solitude, and both usually take hold at a young age, especially if you’re sent to bed too early, or left alone for too long.
Prior to the twentieth century, masturbation was widely considered to have dire effects. It was seen as a terribly dangerous habit, which, if not broken, could lead to all kinds of suffering in later life. Now, however, “self-love” is commonly regarded as the best way of learning about your own body and your sexual responses, and is strongly encouraged for its capacity to reduce physical and emotional tension. It’s often suggested, in fact, that people aren’t masturbating enough – that, due to vestigial guilt and fear, we’re denying ourselves the knowledge essential to sexual health. In many ways, the same is true of reading. What was once considered a dangerous vice, to be forbidden and denounced at all costs, is now, according to one slogan, “what makes America great.”
Other recent campaign slogans have tried to persuade us that reading is sexy (“Get Caught Reading!”), radical (“Reading Changes Lives”), cool (“Get Real @ Your Library”), powerful (“Champions Read”) and productive (“Read and Grow”). But if these things were all true, would we really need so many catchy slogans to persuade us of the fact? It’s easy to forget that our unthinking faith in the power of reading has emerged only in the last fifty years, since the development of all the other kinds of entertainment that now compete for our time and make reading look quaint and harmless in comparison – cable TV, the Internet, hand-held electronic devices, cellphones and video games. As historians of mass literacy have shown, our indiscriminate faith in the act of reading would, not so long ago, have seemed gloriously insane. In this book, Brottman wants to remind us that, while illiteracy is just as dangerous as sexual ignorance, in both cases, there’s a case to be made for moderation.