Published on www.aussiecon.net, September 2006
Yes, he is talking about literature, but the more general point he is making is that what we read affects us. One implication of be Botton's observation is that writing is not a morally neutral activity. When we write, we produce a text which will deeply affect the reader. There are strict laws governing the production of food stuffs which demand that the label show all the ingredients. The aim is that the consumer may accurately ascertain the likely effect the consummation of the food product in question will have on his or her constitution. There are no such laws governing the production of the written word and yet language in its written form jeopardizes the welfare of the recipient in exactly the same way as the consumption of food.
I'm not suggesting we pass laws to warn readers of the potential harms which lie hidden in the articles, books or short stories they are about to read, but I am suggesting that authors consider carefully the likely effect their outpourings will have on the hapless reader who, either by choice or compulsion, reads their works.
Furthermore, my concern here is not great works of literature. I am not concerned about whether or not Sons and Lovers corrupted a generation and marked a significant decline in public morality or whether or not Oscar Wilde planted a seed of superficial cynicism which was never to be eradicated from the mind of the English speaking public, or whether or not Bertold Bretch was a visionary realist or a morally corrupt disparager or all that is worthwhile in the human soul. No. My concern here is the uncounted mass of authors who sit at their keyboards in offices all around the world, hardly aware of the fact that they are authors at all. Lawrence, Wilde and Bretch were no doubt aware that their works would be read and would influence their audience. But far more insidious is the author who never considers his audience, and therefore writes in a moral vacuum.
Take for example the bureaucrat who wrote the follow passage: "For the purposes of this document, the definition of an event is 'a significant gathering of people, who are either: a) members of the university or b) not members of the university or c) a mixture of people, some of whom are members of the university and some of whom are not'"
I suggest that the author of this passage, which says that an event is a gathering of people, did not consider the effect he would have on his audience. For me, the effects of reading such as passage are as numerous as they are depressing. Firstly, I feel a rising sense of resentment that, by reading this passage, I have been forced to spend a small (but to me significant) period of my life deciphering something which I expected to be meaningful and which was in fact not. It's a little like unwrapping a Christmas gift and finding within it nothing but straw. I discard the entire document at my peril because hidden within it's cotton wool padding could very well be a gem of information which will prove to be invaluable. However, it seems such gems are very rare and appear just frequently enough to keep one reading, ever hopeful of find another of fearful of missing the next.
The cornerstone of our judicial system is the writ of habeas corpus by which one can petition an unlawful imprisonment. But being forced to read an extended passage of meaningless verbiage because one fears that by not doing so one may miss a single vital piece of information is akin to being imprisoned in a text against one's will. Perhaps we need a writ of habeas animus to protect the unlawful detention of the soul.
Furthermore, by reading such an exquisite passage of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, I sense that I have been exposed to the most trivial, the most mundane, the most nit picking, unimaginative, uninspiring, dispiriting, mean hearted and mealy mouthed aspect of the human condition. And it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. Sure, it's not so bad to just read a sentence or two of such trivia, but consider for a moment the hapless clerk whose lot it is to read such stuff for a living. He has no choice in the matter. For good or ill he must read the documents which cross his desk. His mind and soul are exposed to the whim of the bureaucratic author for the duration of the working day and the working year. We would consider it immoral tie down such a person and force feed him nothing but junk food. We should consider it similarly immoral to force him to read bureaucratic verbiage which does his soul ill and dulls his mind.
If de Botton is correct and the material we read does affect us, it is a terrible thing to be exposed to such mind numbing, mind jumbling prose.