Books About Things Never Read

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2020)
Presumed Portrait of Jean Vauthier, Edouard Pignon, 1952

There comes a time in many men’s lives—I was going to write ‘in every man’s life,’ but nothing so universal can be said of men—when they begin to realise that they are cultural dinosaurs. They are out of sympathy with interests of the young, they do not even understand their jokes, and do not keep up with the latest artistic or literary developments because they do not believe than anything worthwhile can emerge in the current climate. The fact that all thinkers have deprecated the age in which they lived and seen it as a period of terminal decline hardly gives them pause. It might not have been true before, but this time, by unhappy conscience, it is true! The world, or at least what we value in the world, is finished.

       That is very much what I felt on reading an article recently in Le Monde, the French newspaper supposedly of record (the very fact that I read a newspaper at all puts me in the cultural dinosaur class, for I know no young person who reads one). The article was about the latest ten-yearly survey by the French Ministry of Culture—Orwellian-sounding institution! —of the cultural practices of the French population.

       No doubt one must take the replies to questions in surveys with a pinch of salt, but unthinking scepticism is no more reasonable than unthinking credulity. It is likely that people answered the questions more truly than they answer psephologist’s questions about their voting intentions, when they often deny that they will vote for a candidate deemed disreputable or worse by all right-thinking persons. The questions are less emotionally charged because people, at least nowadays, are usually quite satisfied with their own cultural life and practices, indeed may be proud of them, and do not feel that they have to apologise to anyone for them.

       What most depressed me about the report was the evidence it provided of the diminution of reading as an important part of the cultural, indeed mental, life of young people in France. It is all the more depressing because, according to my observations which admittedly are of a casual rather than of a scientific nature, I think France is less far down the road of cultural disintegration, not to say degradation, than Britain. If things are as bad as this in France, what must they be like in Britain, or for that matter in the United States?

       First a couple of facts, assuming the report to have discovered facts, For personal reasons, I am most concerned with reading and books because they have played so large a part in my life, and in so far as I have had any ambition at all it is to have written by the end of my life something—if only a sentence or two—that someone might read with pleasure or instruction fifty years after my death. But if the results of Ministry of Culture’s survey are anything to go by, in fifty years’ time no one will be reading anything. Reading will have gone the way of goose-quill pens and antimacassars.

       Up to 1973, assiduous reading was more frequent among the young than the old, but ever since then has been in decline among the young. In 1973, 28 per cent of the population bought between 10 and 15 books per year, more of the book-buyers young than old; in 2018 it was half as many, 14 per cent, and of them, all practically old. It seems that the habit of reading, at least of books, has almost disappeared.

       Of course, people might say that the young do not read books in the sense of physical objects; instead, they read them on-line. But I think this is unlikely to be the case; when they are glued to their screens, it is not downloaded books that they are reading, and most of the time it is not even print that they are looking at.

       The next line of defence against the depression that the decline in reading induces in me is that it doesn’t really matter. In about 1850, Matthew Arnold wrote one of the great poems in English of the Nineteenth Century, in which he referred to the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ —like that of a wave receding from the shore—of religious faith, leaving mankind bereft of any but transient and personal satisfactions which it must take as best it could, leaving it to work out the purpose of life for itself. The loss of faith was to Arnold’s epoch what the loss of reading is to ours.

       Did the loss of faith matter? It happened more slowly than the decline in reading, religious faith attenuating unevenly and never quite universally, giving mankind time to accommodate to it. And it is possible to answer Arnold’s question both in the affirmative and the negative.

       Clearly, political alternatives to religion varied, in the following century and a half, from disastrous to catastrophic. Secularists turned out to be at least the equal of religious bigots or fanatics when it came to killing heretics, renegades and infidels. The comforts of religion were denied to millions. In the meantime: it turned out to be not so delightful for people to have to work out the purpose of life for themselves. Civilisation itself seemed to have collapsed into barbarity, at least in the west, when religion ceased to provide the framework of people’s lives.

       On the other hand, it cannot truly be said that, until the decline of religion, everything had been going swimmingly for mankind. Technical progress went pari passu with, if it was not actually caused by, the decline of religion; and while many people are inclined to decry technical improvement because it is not at all the same as moral improvement, I am rather less dismissive of it. Let him who is prepared to forego comfort decry the fist innovation! Comfort is not everything, but it is not nothing either.

       There are many things to lament in our modern world, no doubt some of them related to the loss of religious faith; but was there ever a time in history when there was not much to lament?  Whether there is more to lament than ever before is a matter of judgment: it is not only a question of what there is to lament but of what there is to lament by comparison with what is or was expected and expectable. For example, before the invention of print, it would probably have been unthinkable, and certainly in vain, to lament the high rate of illiteracy. But nowadays to lament that a fairly high percentage of children in some western countries leave school being barely able to read, despite an education lasting eleven or twelve years and costing a vast amount, is perfectly reasonable—at least, on the assumption that a modern country should have a literacy rate of approaching 100 per cent.

       What is striking in France, and would probably have been found elsewhere if the same type of surveys had been performed over the last half century, is the inverse relationship between the proportion of the population undergoing tertiary education and attachment to what the survey calls patrimonial culture, that is to say the cultural tradition as embodied in literature, theatre, classical music, attendance at museums and exhibitions, and so forth. By far the strongest attachment to it is exhibited by the generation in which tertiary education was still very much a minority experience. The higher percentage of a generation that had no tertiary education, the higher the percentage that was cultivated in this sense. In the oldest generation there were approximately four times as many cultivated persons as those who passed their baccalauréat; in the youngest, there were twenty times as many persons who had passed their baccalauréat as were cultivated in this sense.

       Correlation is not causation, of course; but if we apply some of the criteria of the great epidemiologist, Sir Austin Bradford Hill, to estimate whether a correlation was plausibly a causative one, we might easily come to the conclusion that the expansion of tertiary education was indeed a cause of the decline of cultivation (in the sense of a lack of interest in ‘patrimonial culture’) in the population.

       First, there is a very clear relationship between the two variables: the more education, the less cultivation. A second criterion is whether there is a reasonable or plausible explanation of the covariation, and I think that there is.

       The decision to extend and expand tertiary education was a political one: it was decided by politicians because, if educated people were richer than uneducated, a society of educated people would necessarily be richer than one of uneducated people. But of course, it is easier to decree that young people should go to university than to decree that they should learn anything there; it is easier to lengthen education than to improve it. A continuous downward pressure on standards had to be applied to meet the target, which could hardly be missed, so near was it brough and so large was it made.

       When I read authors born in late Victorian times or the early part of the twentieth century, who left school at an early age, I am often surprised by the quality of their prose. Here, taken at random, are the first lines of a short story by Rhys Davies, an unjustly neglected Welsh writer whose formal education ceased when he was fourteen, that is to say in 1915:

It was a wet November evening when Olga, after twelve years’ disgraceful absence, arrived home again. The rusty mountains wept, the bobbing chrysanthemums in the back-gardens were running with liquid coal-dust. A wind whipped through the valley and rubbed stingingly at her silken legs. Above her fur coat her sick done-in face peered like someone in awful woe.

       Even Edgar Wallace, who left school at the age of twelve, sometimes wrote well, though he had no pretensions to being a purveyor of anything but pulp literature. Of course, the writers were hardly typical product of their educations; they were exceptional; and as for Dylan Thomas, who left school at sixteen, he was an authentic genius whom further enforced formal education would probably have ruined. I also recognise that my remarks are very far from being epidemiologically sound; and yet I still suspect that the education that the writers to whom I have referred (and there are many others) was short and intensive rather than long and diluted, so diluted that is empty of almost all cultural content—of a patrimonial nature—which has been replaced by indoctrination, including the notion that one thing is as good as another.

       The dilution in the content of education, at least where the humanities are concerned, has been very thorough. Only by this dilution was it possible to send half the population to university, with the pretence that it was receiving a genuinely tertiary education. The dilution occurred at all levels of ability, so that overall, the attachment to patrimonial culture was bound to decline, even at the uppermost levels of ability. More education has meant less cultivation, at least cultivation in the traditional sense.

       Again, someone might ask whether any of this mattered. The answer would depend on the value that you attached to the culture that is being lost and the value you attached to what it is being replaced by. I doubt that there is an intellectual Archimedean point from which you could lever an indisputable answer that what is being lost is immensely more valuable than what it is being replaced by, that is to say by starting off from indisputable premises you could prove by inexorable logic that we are selling our inheritance for a mess of pottage. But that is what I think.

       I am not the first, nor will I be the last to think it By coincidence, I was reading the first volume of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography the other day and this is what he said, inter alia:

It has long seemed abundantly clear to me that I was born into dying, if not already dead, civilisation, whose literature was part of the general decomposition . . .

       This was published 48 years ago, and here we still are, clinging to the wreckage.


Theodore Dalrymple's latest books are The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (with Kenneth Francis) and Grief and Other Stories from New English Review Press.

NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast<