The Occupational Health and Safety Risks of Being a Writer and Reader

I recently had to suffer through a conversation with someone who was convinced that my job, as a writer, reader and editor, was ‘soft’.

‘My brother’s in construction,’ they told me, ‘and I’m a fireman. We both have dangerous jobs. I risk injury every day of my life. It’s stressful. But you’re a writer. You just potter about in pyjamas and sit at a desk all day. No risks. Easy.’

‘You can get injuries from writing,’ I replied, indignant that he assumed my job was without stress and physical risk (and quietly alarmed that he knew I liked to write in my pyjamas).

‘What? Paper cuts?’ He sniggered.

The popular perception of the writer, free from bodily and psychological harm, irritates me. I don’t believe being an author and reader is as soft-core as most people imagine. In fact, I’m convinced that writing is a hazardous occupation. Not quite as hazardous as, say, disposing of radioactive waste or being Naomi Campbell’s personal assistant, but still, a career nevertheless fraught with danger.

For example, the other night I was lying in bed, having just finished a chapter of Jill Dawson’s Fred and Edie. Deciding it was time for sleep, I flung out a hand to turn off my bedside lamp and accidentally disturbed the tower of books on my bedside table.

(Now, I don’t use the word ‘tower’ lightly here. This was a pile of twenty-five fat novels. I know there were twenty-five, because I counted the books while wiping my blood off their pages later.)

As this mammoth column of literature teetered towards me, I froze with terror and forgot to put out a protective hand. I squeezed my eyes shut and uttered a pathetic whimper of fear, as the tower loomed over my head, toppled over, and delivered me with an almighty concussion.

Books hurt. They’re heavy and hard, and the corner of a solid hardback has eye-gouging potential. Any reader who has reached for a book in an upper shelf of a bookstore and accidentally brought down a pile of its neighbours will know what I mean. If you ever visit a large library and listen hard, you will hear, under the hum of air conditioning, the faraway screams of victims as they’re belted on the head with heavy tomes that have been dislodged from their upper shelves.

Head trauma is therefore the first occupational health and safety risk that comes to mind when I consider the dangers of reading and writing. The collapse of my bedside tower of books, and the injuries I suffered (mild concussion and a split lip) is evidence of this. Books are unsafe, and any serious reader or writer who lives amongst shelves and towers of badly stacked books also lives under the constant threat of bruises and brain injury.

There are other physical health problems that can afflict the writer and reader besides head trauma. I regret to say that I suffer from all of the following: weakened eyesight (from a childhood spent reading in the backseat of the car at night, snatching paragraphs every time the car passed under a street light), poor posture (slumping over a keyboard every day), the development of a hunchback (most commonly suffered by proofreaders and sub-editors made to pore over size 10 font), and insomnia (kept awake at night by a page-turner).

But this isn’t all. The list of occupational health and safety risks grows when you consider the other, more hidden, psychological traumas suffered by writers and readers:

Anxiety: Excessive fondness for one’s own books (a characteristic of the avid reader and serious writer) often leads to severe nervous anxiety in the occasion of the books being lent and not returned in due time.

Social persecution: An early-childhood addiction to Enid Blyton often leads to the habitual use of words such as ‘horrid’ and ‘bother’, which can then lead to bullying from less-literate peers.

Psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies: A writer, shut up at home with her computer, often suffers from poor social skills and, occasionally, mild insanity. When invited out for a rare social engagement with friends, the writer may forget to introduce herself, will giggle at inappropriate moments or may not remember how to speak at all. She might talk of her novel’s characters as though they are real people. Unsettled and excited by this rare social contact, the writer might also display mild symptoms of psychosis, such as hysterical laughter, anxiety, and sexual aggression.

Heartache: A consuming love of the written word can lead to jealousy from partners, the deterioration of relationships, and consequently, stress, heartache and debilitating loneliness. For example, a partner might threaten to break up with a writer or reader because they made them wait on their couch for two hours while they finished a book. The partner might think the reader is neglecting them. The reader will usually argue that narrative climax warranted such neglect. The partner will argue that the reader loves books more than them. The reader might agree.*

As you can see, the writer and reader are faced with a worrisome list of occupational health and safety risks. Whilst they may not have to operate heavy machinery, the literati are nevertheless threatened on a daily basis with physical and psychological trauma. Next time I see that cynical fireman, I’ll be sure to remind him of this. And if he doesn’t listen to me, I might just have to belt him over the head with a dictionary.

*Taken from an actual case study.