Technology is one thing, impossible to resist or address, but another, more puzzling, is the institutional attitude toward books and reading. All pay lip service to the importance of reading, but no public body seems very interested in serving it.
Front Row, where Rendell raised the question, is one of very few places on BBC radio where books can be mentioned, and does a very good job on an excruciatingly tiny budget.
British terrestrial television has not had any kind of book program for years — it engages with literature in rare, brisk dramatizations. What does television do, very happily?
A glance at BBC’s schedules today shows five complete hours devoted to antiques, or, more accurately, junk-shop bargaining, and another two to baking. Is it not conceivable that half of one of those hours might, very cheaply, be devoted to talking about the passion of millions in this country: books?
Here is a suggestion to affirm literature at the center of our national life: Doctors, currently, operate to an official recommendation of no more than 21 units of alcohol (for men) a week, no less than five pieces of fruit or vegetable a day. Why should not the government encourage the simple question: “Are you reading enough?”
An unambitious government recommendation that it is good for you to read 15 books a year whether man, woman or child. That would reflect what we do well, and enhance millions of lives.
Philip Hensher is a novelist and critic.