According to History, Reading in Bed Makes Me Evil

Joseph Caraud, “Am Morgen”, Γ–l auf Holz, 1865, via Wikimedia.

Reading is more dangerous than I thought. Not only is reading while walking cause for concern, but reading in bed may also be a problem. At least people who lived during the 1800’s thought it was.

Like cigarettes are today, reading in bed was a fire hazard. People needed candlelight to see. If they drifted off to sleep while reading with a candle burning at their bedside, there was always a chance that the house could catch fire.

The Atlantic recently published an article that details how the British came to connect reading in bed first to fire and then to an immoral spirit. People who read this way were considered to be “insolent child[ren]” prone to crime. This kind of commentary seems like an overreaction, but the disapproval of reading stemmed from broader changes to society. By the 1800’s, more and more people had access to a personal rather than shared bedroom. And unlike in the 17th and 18th centuries, people were beginning to read silently rather than aloud to others.

Instead of fire, this silent reading was the real danger. People feared that reading alone and other solitary vices “fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective.” Who knew what those wild and crazy book lovers were thinking? Maybe they were contemplating things that they shouldn’t.

It’s strange to imagine that reading caused such panic, but people often don’t handle changes to society well. For those of you interested in learning more, I highly suggest you read Nick Mavrody’s full article, “The Dangers of Reading in Bed”. It is a fascinating peek into how seemingly harmless habits can incite panic.

And if you do read in bed, you probably shouldn’t leave any candles burning while you do it. Just in case.


37 thoughts on “According to History, Reading in Bed Makes Me Evil

  1. I am fascinated at the rise in literacy generally. Folks these days think computers are a major gamechanger for society and individuals’ thinking processes, but I still think it is outstripped by a huge shift underwent by those who lived in the time when the printed word suddenly became more available, thanks to the printing press – and people were able to afford to read material in their own homes. An amazing progression, which created a number of protesters who changed history – and but for this invention – would not have existed only a mere generation earlier.
    A great article, which reminds me of just how different we are from our forebears, thanks to some key inventions…

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Hahaha! This is too funny. I mean, the candles part makes sense, but the whole concept of it being immoral to read alone. I thought it was going to be because they were afraid the masses were educating themselves in secret and were, therefore, readying to challenge the government at the time. Though, I suppose that same ideology and fear still exists today… :/

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahahaha! I try to read before bed, but some nights aren’t as easy as others. :/ And I never understand the people who say they can’t read in bed because it puts them to sleep. I… don’t have that problem. Huh.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Aha! This explains my wayard and nefarious habits! πŸ˜‹

    Great read! Don’t worry, thoughβ€”I’m sitting up* at my desk right now.

    *Okay, so I might be slouching a *bit.*

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my God! Some folks just sit and concoct standards for others to live up to, based on their personal paranoia. Don’t read in bed? If I had lived that time, they would’ve had to go and f*ck themselves ’cause I read nowhere else but in bed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There was apparently a story of a famous lady (possibly duchess?) of the period who had your exact response. She was supposed to go to a party with a lord but began reading in bed. A maid eventually informed her that she was late, and the lady essentially said, “How terrible” and returned to her book. She never made it to the party.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! Some of it made sense – fear of fire and all – but it’s always interesting how moral peril changes over time. Back then people worried about books; now maybe they worry about smartphones and avocado toast. (I wonder what folks would think of reading a smartphone in bed while eating avocado toast? But now I’m just being silly.)


  5. The British were perhaps right about solitary reading leading to a slide into private, fantasy lives that threaten the collective. One of our number has been shut up in his apartment playing Persona 5 for the past two weeks, and he says he prefers talking to the characters in that game over talking to real people in real life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It such a strange balance to cultivate. On one hand I want to give people space to think, and grow, and cultivate new ideas. At the same time, it is painful to see people use anything whether it be books, video games, something else entirely to feed their anxieties and hide from the rest of life.

      Liked by 1 person

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