Peter Murphy:

The third-hand dealing in ideas occurs within a tiny social bubble. Twenty-two per cent of American adults use Twitter. Ten per cent of those produce 80 per cent of tweets. Eight per cent say that what they post is related to politics. In short the class of third-hand dealers is 2 per cent of the adult population. The rest of the people on Twitter and other social media follow celebrities and repost cat videos. Little more than 1.5 per cent of adults comment on politics. Outwardly that tiny figure is almost unchanged from the first stirrings of democracy in the nineteenth century. Then 2 per cent of the population defined the reading public. These were persons with a high degree of literacy who read books. A century ago that group substantially overlapped with the opinion class.

The Public Education Acts of the nineteenth century had the rationale of making the whole population literate and numerate. This justified the expansion of the democratic franchise. The reading of newspapers and then books did expand through to the 1940s. Then began a steady decline. We still have 2 per cent of dedicated readers today. But the project of expanding serious reading not just to the entire population but even to the 15 per cent of persons who make up today’s professional-managerial and technical-administrative classes has died. As this occurred, a gulf opened up between the opinion class and the reading class. The opinion class no longer reads. It emotes.

As Susan Jacoby once wrote, “what has been lost is the culture of effort.” Through a unique confluence of historical circumstances, there was a time when the middlebrow ideal of striving to improve oneself through self-education, especially reading, was widespread and generally respected. That ideal is now generally an object of mockery. Most people don’t care about achievement per se so much as achievement relative to others. Literacy is far too common to be high-status anymore. When garbage collectors and truck drivers can join the Book of the Month Club and be exposed to the same classic literature as university students, well, how are the latter supposed to feel special now? Like a village in Vietnam, they had to destroy the ideal of aspirational reading in order to save it. Now that the garbage collectors and truck drivers are safely occupied with thumbing their phones and reading Facebook memes, books can regain their earlier prestige as a mark of distinction between the screened and the unscreened.