You read it here first: the game is over for the book

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

What ever made us think the pastime would last longer than bear-baiting or falconry, asks DONALD CLARKE

EVERYTHING’S GETTING worse. Children are becoming stupider and stupider. Give it another year and we’ll all be living in caves and worshipping ferrets.

Maybe we’ll be all right. After all, we got through the Black Death and the last ice age. It is, however, difficult for an old curmudgeon to resist despair at the decline of interest in reading books. The Cúirt literary festival in Galway has recently ground to a happy conclusion. The London Book Fair has waved farewell to movers and shakers. Both will be back next year. Remain within the bubble and you can easily convince yourself that books still matter.

Out there in the real world the news is less happy. UK print fiction sales dipped 26 per cent in the opening weeks of 2012. In this country, bookshops are vanishing from the high street with depressing regularity. If the situation continues such establishments will soon become as rare as fletchers or chandlers. We think of ourselves as literary types, but a recent report from Nielsen showed that print book sales were declining faster in the Republic of Ireland than in any other country surveyed.

I can hear what you’re saying. It’s all to do with the blasted ebook. Crane your neck while on a train and, like as not, you’ll find dozens of commuters ploughing through Spinoza on their handheld devices.

If only it were so. Listen to this. The Pew Research Centre has discovered that about 20 per cent of Americans failed to read a single book (in any format) over the past year. No. It was not ever thus. The figures are the lowest since polling began in 1978.

It seems that, once the Harry Potter series ground to a halt, a terrifying number of Rowling’s acolytes went back to getting their heads stuck in buckets and chasing passing fire trucks.

All of this dubious statistical mumbo jumbo is laid down as cover for an argument that will now progress in purely anecdotal fashion.

Did I mention that everything’s getting worse and children are getting stupider and stupider? Actually, that’s not fair. You’re probably more likely to see a youth clutching a book than encounter an adult wielding such an outdated artefact. When the grown-up does deign to read a book there is every chance it will be a tarted-up, adult edition of some yarn about juvenile wizards. Let’s not get started on the crimes against syntax perpetuated by the chilling Dan Brown.

At some point in the past 30 years reading ceased to be something you were expected to do. Peruse a celebrity questionnaire in your favourite magazine and, under “hobbies”, you will, too often, find the milliner, pop star or triple jumper mentioning “reading”. Good for him or her. But one might reasonably ask when reading became a bleeding hobby. Bird-watching is a hobby. Trainspotting is a hobby. You could, at a stretch, describe football hooliganism as a hobby.

When I last checked, it was taken as (ahem) read that any reasonably educated adult cracked a book from time to time. Fifty years ago, to list reading as a hobby would have seemed as peculiar as describing television viewing in those terms. Bedside tables were invented to accommodate the volume that one currently had “on the go”.

What went wrong? Why is everything now so ghastly? The usual answer involves the proliferation of alternative entertainments. We engage in micro-blogging. We post photographs of our filthy holiday on that Facebook thing. Pick up your tablet and there is every chance that, before sinking back into The Critique of Pure Reason, you will be distracted by the need to help certain furious birds annihilate various stubborn pigs.

It is true that life could be pretty darn boring in the 19th century. Once Napoleon had been vanquished, there weren’t even – in Europe, anyway – any significant land wars to be waged. A middle-class person had all the time in the world to plough through Dombey and Son or The Brothers Karamazov.

Yes, there is more fun to be had in the home these days. But it is still possible – I did it in the summer of 1999 – to read two whole volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu while working your way through Final Fantasy VII on the Sony PlayStation. (Well, not at exactly the same time. But you get my drift.)

Oh, forget it. The game is up for the book. Never mind. This business of recreational reading always looked like a passing fad. Until relatively recently, only nobs with harpsichords in their drawing rooms read for pleasure. The novel didn’t really take off until the late 17th century. What ever made us think the pastime would last longer than bear-baiting or falconry? The phenomenon described above looks, in fact, like the default condition for western civilisation.

You may now return to Britain’s Got Talent.

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