As technology makes book-reading a specialist activity, more should be done to keep literature at the heart of life.
Just before Christmas, I was sent a newly printed omnibus edition of JP Martin's Uncle books. These recherché volumes of English nonsense humour, 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. (I did my best by naming 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 half a million rand 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.
A few days later, I had the inexplicable urge to read some Arnold Bennett. Unfashionable, but no longer inaccessible, Bennett can now be bought in total – 36 novels, dozens of short stories, a dozen volumes of nonfiction – in a second, and without taking up an inch of your bookshelves. Astonishingly, the whole lot cost nothing more than R40 in e-form.
Have we ever lived in 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 needn't be condescending – David Nicholls' One Day, a novel with an Oulipo-like formal constraint, was a multi-million seller. This ought to feel like a golden age. But it doesn't. It feels like the end of days for reading.
Last week, speaking on BBC Radio 4s' Front Row, Ruth Rendell was commenting on one of the beneficiaries of the "long tail": Stoner, a once forgotten novel by John Williams. Rendell suggested that it has become a huge success in 2013, 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.
We 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. But 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. But when the American 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 reprogrammed myself to become discontent with whatever I'm doing faster", everyone must recognise the sensation.
Technology is one thing, impossible to resist or address, but another, more puzzling, is the institutional attitude towards books and reading. We all pay lip service to the importance of reading, but no public body seems very interested in serving it. Front Row, on which Rendell raised the question, is one of very few places on BBC radio on which books can be mentioned.
British terrestrial television hasn't had any kind of book programme for years – it engages with literature in rare, brisk dramatisations.
What does television do, very happily? A glance at the BBC's schedules as I write 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?
I have a suggestion to affirm literature at the centre of our national life.
Doctors in the United Kingdom 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 shouldn't governments encourage the simple question: "Are you reading enough?"
An unambitious recommendation that it is good for you to read 15 books a year whether man, woman or child would do well, and enhance millions of lives. – © Guardian News & Media 2014
Philip Hensher is a novelist and critic