Penny Dreadfuls


I remember being in school around ten-years-old and hearing about something called 'Penny Dreadfuls'. The way it was explained to me went like this: In the 19th Century, as printing costs started to come down and literacy levels rose, books became easily accessible to everyone. Publishers made the most of this by producing extremely cheap ones out of wood pulp, and then marketing them at the lower classes, they would sell them for just a penny each. This was extremely cheap. As a point of comparison, Charles Dickens' serials sold for 12 pennies a pop. So that, at least, explains the 'penny' part of their name. 


The 'dreadful' moniker comes from the fact that as well as being cheap, they were also pretty nasty. The stories were generally about murders, illicit encounters, ghosts, paranormal activity, blood, gore and immorality. And that was really the key to their success. They were an absolute sensation in their day. Publishers couldn't print them fast enough to keep up with demand. And so soon, Victorian Britain was flooded with pernicious trash.

It didn't do society any good of course. It was reported in an editorial piece in 1893 that:

It is almost a daily occurrence with magistrates to have before them boys who, having read a number of 'dreadfuls', followed the examples set forth in such publications, robbed their employers, bought revolvers with the proceeds, and finished by running away from home, and installing themselves in the back streets as 'highwaymen'. This and many other evils the 'penny dreadful' is responsible for. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols. (Wikipedia)

This was the lesson my ten-year-old self learned from Penny Dreadfuls: People love sensationalism. People love what appeals to their most base instincts. Violence, sex, intrigue, shocks. And yet what people love to consume the most rarely does them any good. I guess it's like being offered a vegetable or a bag of candy. People would generally go for the candy. It just tastes so sweet. And yet it's just empty calories that doesn't do us any good. The vegetable takes more effort to enjoy but it fills us with goodness.

Today I was recording Part 14 of the refreshed Stay Free video series and I was thinking about all the things that potentially distract us from pursuing God wholeheartedly. We really haven't changed that much from the days of Penny Dreadfuls. When faced with a choice of reading the Bible OR watching a box-set on Netflix (most likely filled with swearing, sex, murder, shocks and intrigue), which appeals more? When it's between praying and watching brain-switched-off YouTube videos, which draws us in? When it's about engaging with the issues in our world, preaching the gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission OR filling our heads with trashy celebrity gossip, what's the more attractive? More often than not it's the 'empty calories' that win the fight for our time. 

My concern is that in a world where we're becoming increasingly overstimulated by mostly trashy media, we're actually losing the ability to sit down, focus, concentrate on, and enjoy good nourishment. That we're almost being distracted by the enemy into a kind of spiritual stupor. So I'd be interested in your experiences with this. Do you have any thoughts? Do you find it easy to make time to read the Bible? Do you regularly read books on Christian discipleship or apologetics? Does sitting down to pray come easily? Or do distractions quickly take over? Do you have any tips or methods to help people make time in their day for solid nourishment?