Book examines dangers of reading for young men in late 19th-century France

Book cover and François Proulx

French professor François Proulx examines the social concern over young men’s reading habits in late 19th-century France, and the forgotten novels that proposed to address the issue, in his new book “Victims of the Book: Reading and Masculinity in Fin-de-Siècle France.”

Proulx had difficulty finding a 19th-century painting featuring a man reading for the book cover. He eventually found the painting “Boy with Skull” by Paul Cézanne. Proulx said paintings, as well as scholarship, most often deal with women and reading during that time period.

Courtesy François Proulx

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Excessive reading by young men was seen as a cause of declining virility and a national threat in late 19th-century France.

In a new book, “Victims of the Book: Reading and Masculinity in Fin-de-Siècle France,” French professor François Proulx of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looks at attitudes toward young men’s reading habits and uncovers a forgotten sub-genre of novels geared toward them that reflected those national concerns.

Apprehension about the dangers of reading and its potential to corrupt young readers was not new but it had been directed mostly toward women, with the 1856 novel “Madame Bovary” the most prominent example. The subject shifted to young men in the late 19th century.

A profusion of novels sought to address underlying cultural concerns that young male readers at a critical, impressionable age would be led astray and become unemployed, anarchist, criminal or sexually deviant. Reading was characterized “as an emasculating illness afflicting French youth at the turn of the century,” Proulx wrote in his book’s introduction.

The novels proliferated at the fin-de-siècle, or turn of the century, from about 1880 to 1914. France had recently lost the Franco-Prussian War, and it was a time of perceived national decline.

“It was a crushing military defeat and the end of the Second French Empire. It was a troubled time in France, especially in terms of masculinity. The French thought they were a powerful empire, and they lost in this really quick and humiliating way against the Germans,” Proulx said.

At the same time, print took off as a mass media, books became more available and reading rooms were common. Excessive reading by French youth was one of the factors blamed for the country’s decline.

“(Adolescents) were distracted by all this fiction and poetry they were reading,” Proulx said. “This explanation was found in novels, journalism, medical texts and texts about pedagogy and school reform.”

Proulx – who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century French literature, including the writings of Marcel Proust, and who is affiliated with the department of gender and women’s studies

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