It’s 7 p.m. on a school night, and you suddenly feel the cold chill of fear run down your spine. “I know I’ve got a five-page essay to write, but the thought of cracking open my copy of The Plague and digesting a few chapters sounds like mild torture.” While this all-encompassing anxiety associated with intimidating prose has stuck within the psyche of man’s mind since the earliest iterations of literature, what about people who genuinely fear books and the potential they have to sway one’s opinion? If this sounds like a plot for a Stephen King novel, think again – here’s what we know about bibliophobia, or the fear of books, so far.
While somewhat rare, bibliophobia is the irrational fear of books and the ideas therein. Although the specifications of one’s fear differ depending on the individual, bibliophobia encompasses a wide array of niches within the realm of literature. While one person may recoil at the sight of poetry – metrophobia – others may have a generalized hatred for books that transcends plot, type, or period. Not only do these patients loathe the idea of sitting down with a book and reading, but they will also use every trick and tactic in their mental arsenal to avoid literature entirely.
More specifically, bibliophobia penetrates the outermost layers of the psyche and resonates in the underpinning logical faculties of the brain. For one individual in the early dawn of civilization, Qin Shi Huang, books represented upheaval, anarchy, betrayal, and societal resistance. Huang, during his reign as China’s first emperor, ordered his subordinates to destroy any literary material that could challenge his position as the rightful ruler. Rather than seeing font or writing materials as tools to strengthen one’s wisdom, it was the underlying philosophies of the words conveyed within the text that sent Huang into a frenzy. And although scholars are still unsure of the first iteration of bibliophobia or where it reared its head, Huang was among the first political figures to outwardly express his hatred for books and the potential for change they held.
Since then, political and religious figures have used book burning as an overarching means of silencing their enemies and naysayers, or worse, forcing their subordinates into submission. While there is no concrete proof that these leaders had bibliophobia, the irrational fear they experienced when confronted with ancient texts lends credence to the belief that many rulers within ancient times had unresolved anxiety regarding books.
What Causes Bibliophobia to Manifest Itself?
Like many disorders of the mind, bibliophobia’s origins and causes are still unknown by medical researchers. However, patients who struggle within an academic environment, specifically those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia, are prone to bibliophobia. Like Huang, the books themselves cause little distress for the individual, but the physical objects contain underlying meaning and anxiety associated with a specific subject.
For students who’ve struggled with unsatisfactory grades and unproductive cramming sessions, bibliophobia manifestation is straightforward. To these students, the books represent countless hours invested in fruitless endeavors. Lackluster marks on their test, torturous cramming sessions in the library, and missed social events flood the psyche of a person struggling with bibliophobia. Rather than seeing the binding of a book or its leathery exterior as an inviting object, they see mental anguish, psychological torment, and discomfort. To soothe their mental anguish, they develop an unnatural and debilitating hatred for books and the ideas they represent.
However, in rare instances, patients may experience an uneasy feeling of dread and anxiety from the physical appearance of a book alone. The latter manifestation of bibliophobia is still an ongoing topic of research, but experts within the domain of mental health believe the irrational response to books lies within the spectrum of anxiety disorders. In the same way a patient with obsessive-compulsive disorder feels a tangible physical reaction from various stimuli or external cues, a person with bibliophobia feels an all-encompassing sense of dissatisfaction near books.
Symptoms and Signs You Might Suffer from Bibliophobia
Since bibliophobia falls within the scope of anxiety, patients with the disorder report similar symptoms. For starters, be aware of changes in your heart rate, cardiovascular distress, or uncomfortable chest tightness when in proximity to literature. As your anxiety mounts in front of a book, your body begins to shield itself from the psychological discomfort you feel. As a result of this process, the physical aspects of bibliophobia begin to show: rigidity throughout the limbs, unconscious flexing and bracing of one’s muscles, shallow, rapid breathing, and bouts of clamminess and perspiration.
From here, let’s talk about the second side effect that, while rare, influences a patient’s lifestyle. If you or a loved one secretly finds ways to avoid challenges or projects that require reading, consulting with a mental health professional about bibliophobia is ideal. Moreover, patients with bibliophobia find unique and cunning ways to ditch class, procrastinate over their homework, and often suffer from poor grades and lackluster career prospects later in life.
Lastly, we must examine the social behavior of an individual suspected of suffering from bibliophobia in silence. If you notice that a friend, classmate, or relative finds new excuses to opt out of situations involving books or literary content more than usual, this may be a hidden sign of an anxiety disorder. Although venturing to the library may not be one’s cup of tea, if the mere thought of the adventure causes the individual to have tremors, shortness of breath, erratic behavior, or bouts of nausea, the issue must be explored by a medical professional.
How a Patient with Bibliophobia Can Reclaim Their Life and Power
An effective way of reversing the psychological grip of bibliophobia is by slowly introducing the patient into literary environments with their consent. Rather than expecting the person to engage with a book for an hour, start by walking near a library or bookstore. If the individual withstands the experience, begin increasing the amount of exposure they have to their phobia. Perform simple tasks such as having them open the door to the establishment, standing at the entrance, and leaving after a few minutes. Slowly, the individual will become acclimated to environments with books and curb their anxiety.
Moreover, individuals who’ve made it so far as to touch a book are advised to approach literature slowly and methodically. Mental health practitioners often have patients engage with a novel, read a few pages, and stop the session once feelings of dread and worry arise or make them fidget in their seats. In subsequent sessions, the patient will find that their mental stamina increases, thereby giving them additional willpower and motivation to extend their reading sessions.
In both examples, the underlying principle demonstrated is simple: incremental progress infused with patience and persistence. Patients may have a lifetime of stress related to books, but the revelation comes when they learn their fears and phobias do not have to define their character or actions. Rather than shying away from environments and experiences on account of their anxiety, they can learn to rely upon their executive function – the neurological skills that allow us to control our behavior – to act in defiance of their bibliophobia. Slowly but surely, the overarching grip of bibliophobia loosens, unlocking a new world of stories and elegant prose for the individual to explore.
Shortcutting Bibliophobia with the Pomodoro Technique
While the rest of the world was jamming to their favorite bands in the late 80s, a man named Francesco Cirillo was working with individuals to unlock a hidden superpower – beating procrastination. Although opinions vary, the key component to a successful course through life is the ability to set one’s eye on a task and see it to its completion. Not only was Circillo successful in his endeavor, but he may also have given bibliophobia patients a workaround to remedy their woes.
In simplistic terms, the Pomodoro method works on the brain’s need for stimulus by providing small, manageable periods of work followed by a brief break. Francesco found that even the most hardened procrastinators could modify their behavior for trivial periods ranging between 15- and 25 minutes without much fuss. Once completed, the practitioner was awarded a small break that would increase every three work-break cycles. The procrastinator would follow this flip-flop framework until all his tasks were accomplished, thus overthrowing the carnal areas of the brain responsible for pain avoidance and pleasure seeking.
But here’s the catch: the Pomodoro method is also an effective means of overthrowing the fear of books. When a person who suffers from bibliophobia sits down with a book for a short duration, followed by a much-deserved reward, tangible progress arises. Although the aforementioned 15- and 25-minute chunks may seem overwhelming, bibliophobia patients can modify their “working” periods as needed, shortening or lengthening their durations as progress unfolds. Francesco never intended for the Pomodoro technique to influence the minds of individuals who struggle with niche forms of anxiety, but the Pomodoro method is powerful beyond belief.