What, according to Jefferson's "The Dangers of Reading Fiction" essay, are the changes associated with reading fiction?
Jefferson claims that when someone sets aside "instructional" reading for novels, several negative changes will occur in the reader, such as:
1. Time lost--Jefferson does not see reading fiction as a wise use of time; he believes that a person must keep himself "instructively employed." His mentality is understandable when one considers his era--a period of time-consuming manual labor and weighty matter of state.
2. A poisoning of the mind--Jefferson also strongly claims that novel reading becomes addictive and eradicates one's desire to engage in "wholesome" reading. For Jefferson, a Rationalist, writing that encouraged one to rely on his feelings and imagination has no merit. He goes so far as to call fiction a "mass of trash" which has the power to turn someone completely away from appropriate reading.
3. Poor judgment--Not only does reading fiction take away one's quest for logic (according to Jefferson); it also clouds the reader's judgment and hinders him from performing acts logically, such as business transactions.
4. Moral soundness and a development of "taste and style": Jefferson does admit that reading a little bit of fiction can help someone develop his or her moral compass and that poetry from the likes of Shakespeare, Pope, and others can shape an appreciation for complex writing.
Jefferson voiced his concerns about reading fiction in a letter to Nathaniel Burwell in 1818. It occurs in the context of a discussion of a plan of education for women, and Jefferson argues that a major obstacle to women's education (and education in general) is what he calls an "inordinate passion...for novels." He refers to novels as "poison" because they distract the mind from the sort of rigorous reading that a person should be doing. After reading novels, he says, "reason and fact" are "rejected." The reader is not interested in anything that is not dressed up in "the figments of fancy." With a few exceptions, reading modern novels creates a "bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life." So with a very few exceptions, novels have no place in a woman's education, or a man's either. They distract people from more rigorous and more serious work. Of course, as in so many aspects of Jefferson's life, his deeds contradicted his words. Jefferson enjoyed many novels, to the extent that he and his wife quoted passages from Tristram Shandy to each other on her deathbed. And even in this letter, he allowed that some novels were worth reading. But as a general rule, he said he regarded novels as a "mass of trash."
Jefferson claims that when people read novels, they waste immense amounts of time that could be spent on instruction. He refers to fiction as a type of "poison" that causes the mind to reject "wholesome reading." Instead, people who have read fiction discard reason in favor of anything that is fanciful and imaginative. As a result, fiction readers have a "bloated imagination," or an imagination that has grown too large, and they have mistaken judgement and no care for the practicalities of life.
Jefferson, however, finds that narratives of people's lives that are cloaked as fiction are of greater value. He says poetry is not of great value, though he cites Shakespeare and others as among a few writers of fiction who are worthy of reading to help the reader develop good taste. Jefferson's views are very characteristic of the Enlightenment and its focus on reason over imagination.