Will the attitude toward books be the end of days for reading?

As technology makes book-reading a specialist activity, more should be done to keep the power of literature at the heart of life and less taken for granted

By Philip Hensher  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sun, Jan 05, 2014 - Page 9

The newly printed omnibus edition of J.P. Martin’s Uncle books, recherche volumes of English nonsense humor, about a millionaire elephant and his amusing enemies — called things like Beaver Hateman and Jellytussle — have mostly languished out of print since the 1960s. Not even the addition of hundreds of Quentin Blake illustrations, working at his hilarious peak, and the support of a small coterie of fanatical followers could persuade ordinary publishers to reissue them. (Despite the naming of a novel after one of Uncle’s best friends, the King of the Badgers.)

An inventive editor, Marcus Gipps, solved the challenge by using what may either be a very new or a very old model of publishing. Crowdsourcing through Kickstarter raised nearly £30,000 (US$49,263) from 540 supporters. It was a subscription model popular in the 18th century — Alexander Pope made his fortune by selling copies of his Iliad translation in advance — but not much used recently. Through whatever means, some books previously rare to the point of unobtainability are now in print, through once unconventional means.

There is also the case of Arnold Bennett. Unfashionable, but no longer inaccessible, Bennett can now be bought in total — 36 novels, dozens of short stories, a dozen volumes of non-fiction — in a second, and without taking up an inch of bookshelf space. Astonishingly, the entire collection cost nothing more than £2.25 in digital form.

Has there ever been a more wonderful age for readers? Self-published authors can reach a huge audience cheaply; the “long tail” means books with a tiny appeal can still be read; and popular successes are still commanding huge audiences, in hundreds of thousands or even millions. Those popular successes need not be condescending — David Nicholls’ One Day, a novel with an Oulipo-like formal constraint, was a multimillion seller. This ought to feel like a golden age, but it does not. It feels like the end of days for reading.

This week, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row program, Ruth Rendell was commenting on one of the beneficiaries of the “long tail,” a once forgotten novel by John Williams, Stoner. Rendell suggested that it became a huge success last year, compared with its small impact on publication in 1965, precisely because it celebrates the power of reading and the value of literature. In 1965, that was taken for granted. Now, Rendell suggested, reading has become a specialist activity, and Stoner is more “needful.”

It feels accurate, and, painfully, one of the reasons may be electronic communication itself.

This may be a lucky generation: The generation that acquired the ability to read a whole book without effort in the first half of our lives, and in the second half, found ourselves presented with immense, easy riches to plunder. However, the Internet that presents any classic you can think of, pretty well, may be the thing that makes it harder to read that classic.

Of course, this can be overstated, and there are teenagers now reading who love Middlemarch as much as anyone has ever loved a book.

However, when the US author George Saunders talks about “the very real (what feels like) neurological effect of the computer and the iPhone and texting and so on — it feels like I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster,” everyone must recognize the sensation.

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.