Literary historian Robert Darnton points out that as private reading bloomed, some feared that the act would have physical consequences. He cites the German writer J.G. Heinzmann, who in a 1795 tract warned that excessive reading would increase “susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.”
There’s something so time-specific to this list of maladies, isn’t there? I mean, you read it, smile, and say, “That’s such an eighteenth-century image, like powdered wigs, quills and horse-drawn carriages.” I read this last week, but I thought of it again while reading a review of not one, but two new books about walking. Specifically, “questions of how and why we walk — what walking means.” (Apparently this hasn’t been settled by the previous umpteen books about the meaning of walking. I will never stop being amazed that people can produce so much verbiage from such a humble topic.)
We know that walking is good for us, that “if undertaken in regular doses,” as Shane O’Mara writes in “In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration,” “it provides the small, cumulative and significant positive changes for lung, heart and especially brain health.”
…For O’Mara, the answers are practical. “The emerging science,” he insists, “is giving us a clear picture: Regular walking confers enduring and substantial benefits on individuals, and on society at large.” It improves our “moods, clarity of thought, our creativity,” as well as “our connectedness to our social, urban and natural worlds.”
And yet, when we lived in a world built around the length of the human stride, when architecture was oriented toward pedestrians, and when towns were designed to be walkable, people still found ways to be unhappy and unhealthy. He’s not wrong, but it’s such a shallow, myopic way to look at it. It strikes me that this type of optimal-health-and-efficiency neurobabble will one day be seen as a stereotypical marker of our own time. “Hahaha, isn’t it weird that people back then were so obsessed with brain chemistry and the malign effects of smartphones?”
Another review, this time of a book about the history of Progressivism, suggests that the combination of Darwinian theories, philosophical pragmatism, and the disillusionment following the carnage of the Civil War was what set the stage for Progressive ideas to flourish. Of course, it has long been argued, convincingly in my opinion, that World War One was “the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction,” as Jacques Barzun said. How many other wars have likewise served as punctuation marks at the end of an epoch? The cynical thought occurred to me that perhaps “history” is a record of the silly trends that preoccupy us while we wait for the next massive war to come along and wipe the slate clean. Will our contemporary plague serve as a similar cultural palate-cleanser? Or will we pick right up where we left off until the next big war alters our assumptions and priorities again?