Abstract

This article approaches reading by comparing the views of police officers and physicians in eighteenth-century France. Both had a vested interest in readers as part of their professional duties. Contrary to expectations, anxiety about reading cut across the ideological divisions of the Enlightenment. When we situate the police perspective on the dangers of reading in this broader conversation, we see their repressive activities in a new light. What distinguished their views from those of doctors, who targeted reading as a public health problem for medical intervention, was not their conviction that reading required regulation but their understanding of fiction and its effects. The police located the dangers of reading outside the text, not inside it. Reading fueled conversations, speculations, and the production of more texts. By contrast, the doctors warned about the absorptive powers of fiction and moved the danger zone inside the individual's imagination. This analysis suggests that attitudes toward reading revealed doubts about the human capacity for self-government that guided both royal officials and men of science in their diagnosis of social life.

You do not currently have access to this content.