On the radio this morning some nice educated people were wringing their hands about a report that's just come out which says boys don't read anymore and are falling behind girls in standards of literacy. So how were they going to get boys reading again?
I didn't hear the solutions they came up with because I stepped into the shower at that point and by the time I stepped out again they were doing a weather report.
Boys think reading is "boring", apparently, and would rather be watching movies or playing computer games. Girls, according to the experts who compiled this report, were pressing on with their reading and becoming intellectual superbeings, or something.
Well, it's a problem that has been around an awfully long time. Very few boys read when I was at school either. I've always been considered rather quaint and old-fashioned because the only thing I never forget to carry with me is a book.
But are women really reading that much more than boys? If they are, in my experience, it doesn't tend to be books they read; it's more likely to be magazines, and usually celebrity magazines with Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole on the front. And though I do occasionally see women reading books on the bus--whereas I never ever see men doing it, other than me--the books are usually cheap paperbacks, badly written romantic fiction or stories about charismatic detectives.
Personally I think it would be more instructive for the intelligence and more uplifting to the spirit not to bother with books like that.
I know all generalisations are false, except that one, because I have many women friends, made through writing, who are extremely well-read, and many male friends too. But on the male and the female side the well-read people I know are, with one exception, writers and poets. For them to know books is pretty much the same as Andy Murray owning a tennis racket (or is that racquet?)
The people I'm talking about are the ones outside of the trade. Outside of the trade I barely know anybody who will even hazard twenty minutes with a broadsheet newspaper.
And it's boring to be around, but I'm a writer; I'm going to prefer the company of my own, to some extent. This is a post-literate age in almost every respect. But since there are many other ways that a person can feed his or her spirit, which is probably the fundamental role of poetry if not prose (the "ameliorating effect" Allen Ginsberg spoke of), I'm not sure the vanishing of the book in the majority of people's lives really matters.
As long, that is, as there are still enough books around for them to be available to those of us who cherish them.