It’s a fairly regular occurrence for economists, historians and the like to poke fun in studies at the age-old practise (common with the ancient Greeks) of older generations bemoaning the contemporary decline of life when compared to the “good old days”. Stuff ran such an article recently in which an economist produced figures to show we’ve never been better off.

The problem with these advocacies is of necessity they’re confined to measurable economic data. But there’s a lot more to life than those concerns, important though they are.

For example, it’s indisputable that contemporary generations are spectacularly ignorant when compared with say my schooldays generation.

Once, my then 18 year old son, beneficiary of our best private schools’ education in Wellington and Sydney, was blown away when I showed him my 1953 3rd form text books at then newly opened Naenae College.

It was rough as guts and positively anarchic outside of the school-room but by God we received a terrific education. Having put numerous kids through our supposed top private schools, I’m shocked at the mediocrity and nonsense, these outfits serve up, especially the private girls’ colleges. Maori wonderfulness and the bloody Treaty are seemingly priorities.

Older academic friends recount their dismay at the general ignorance of incoming new university students. A major culprit is the cell-phone but in my eyes an even bigger one is the decline in book-reading.

Currently, throughout the western world 75% of fiction is read by women. It baffles me.

I rate fiction, and especially comedic writing as one of the greatest joys in my life. High on the list of pleasures is the creation of my libraries in four countries.

This zeal traces back to my state house childhood in the 1950s. We were all dead poor, nevertheless every state house in my milieu contained libraries. I still recall them.

Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” was a standard, reflecting the impact the 1930s depression had on the working classes. But we also had “Cannery Row” which in the context of the times was remarkable, and specially its successor “Sweet Thursday” written in the 1950s when Steinbeck had lightened up from his early days gloom. Those two books had enormous influence, particularly in America with young people aspiring to become marine biologists.

Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was in every home, so too its copycat “The Harp in the South” by our own lovely Ruth Park. Norman Collins, who Evelyn Waugh enjoyed ridiculing, published “London Belongs to Me” in 1945 and every home seemingly had a copy. As a boy I loved it and I was delighted to pick up a copy in a second-hand bookshop recently.

One oddity was a book “Abyssinia on the Eve” written by a Hungarian, Ladislas Farago in 1935. It was a very readable account of then Abyssinia with lots of photos. But why did so many homes have it? I can only speculate that the pending Italian invasion, a pre-runner to the Second World War sparked the interest but right up until about 1970 copies were common-place in our second-hand bookshops.

Book reading is highly addictive and it saddens me that so many young folk these days have never experienced it.

That said, the industry is on the rebound with more books being produced than ever before and in Britain, the number of bookshops on a sharp rise.

A fortnight back we drove down to Wigtown (look it up), a delightful two hour trip. I was last there about 8 years ago and expected a declining scene given its remoteness. But to the contrary and we had trouble finding a park. Heaps more bookshops had opened and the town was packed, so too its restaurants and cafes which had sprung up in response. Talking of lunch brought back an amusing recollection.

On that occasion, chatting to Shaun Bythell who had started it all, we’d asked where we could get lunch. Only the pub across the road, he’d advised. So we bowled over and into an empty dining room. Quaffing our wine, after about 5 minutes a middle-aged bloke came in and in typical fashion I’m accustomed to in Scotland, pulled up a chair and poured himself a drink.

“You chaps look like you know a thing or two,” he said. “I desperately need advice. What I want to know is are all women bloody mad?”

We solemnly assured him they are. It transpired he’d bought the business a fortnight earlier and that morning, succumbing to its pressure, she’d walked out.



fighting temeraire August 3, 2023 at 9:25 am

I know someone in the educational book trade, she works for a publisher, and she told me the other day that e book sales were down by paper book sales were well up.

Took up your offer Bob and looked up Wigtown. By my reckoning some 60 KM’s west of Dumfries, on Wigtown Bay, South Ayrshire (?).

In the context of your suggestion that many young have failed to ” grasp ” reading and books in hard copy, many of the same will be without an array of Atlas’s. I have a range relating to various parts/regions of the world and frequently refer to them.
In the case of Wigtown my 2015 Collins atlas of Britain provides the reference – Page 64 E5

Regards, Steve Ellis

Again, Bob you are spot on. I also paid for private education, daughter etc., and find my granddaughter rarely if ever reads and without her phone is miserable. Nothing to do is the cry these days! I hope you are right and that books are coming back. I say that as the selection in my public library is just about exhausted and I have no room in my own library for the latest publications.

Who was the ‘she’ who walked out? I presume an employee or spouse?

Delightful, as always. We’re going to miss you, Sir.

My wife & I also sent our daughter to a posh private school for several years. After 3 years we realised we had fallen prey to the “Price Placebo” effect and changed schools to a local college that emphasised books in hands. Result? Thriving, happy girl.

Two things. A friend bought a small item ($1.85) in a shop in Birkenhead, paid for it with a $2 coin. It took the two young people behind the counter so long work out the change, she missed her bus. So, education standards are well down in the newer generations.
My children and grand-children who read have done the best with their lives. I was like you when a lad in Aberdeen, not much money but always plenty of books in ours and neighbours houses. I’ve spent many wet and cold days as kid, when I couldn’t get outside, curled up somewhere reading a book. Can’t beat it.
I don’t think I was ever bored until I started listening to politicians.

The Silent Majority August 3, 2023 at 1:23 pm

My daughter, a 25 year old med student, loves books so much that she aspires to having a whole room as a library in her home one day. And knowing her, she will!

Happy to say my 15 year old granddaughter in fact failed to achieve the reading task she set herself last Christmas holidays holidays. Managed only 85 books out of the 100.

Can you give a list of your best comedic books before you sign off . Thanks Chris

Two comments on responses- only a woman would need to ask who had walked out – and only an Aucklander would miss a bus for .15cents change. Just saying…

I must say Google Msos is good and Wigtown looks like a neat town to visit. I’ve added to my trip , leaving London tomorrow and heading out to Eindsor and Stonehenge.

if you enjoy a good browse around book shops , check out “Hay on Wye”

I had read all the Agatha Christie and Dame Naomi Marsh books well before i was 10 and loved Historical summaries of US civil war and WW2 for some reason…. going to library in Whanaganui with Mum was highlight of week and have had a 65-year love affair with reading and instilled it in my girls and starting on grandkids ! .. I too am appalled by the lack of reading by young (and not so young) people today .. grads come out of Uni illiterate and have no idea of how history shapes the world we live in

Chris 2.26 p.m. I think it is Full circle, but one of Bob’s books, about the Antarctica.
I recall my second brother’s comment; he had been reading it and hoped that nobody came to the door as he would look like a sook. He had tears of laughter flowing down each cheek as the book made him cry it was so funny.

Speaking of younger people being ignorant, you’re right on the money. And I say this as a millenial.

Just recently I was talking to some younger colleagues (both early 20s and recent graduates). You’ll find this interesting Sir Bob: during the covid lockdowns they weren’t required to take their university exams in person. They were all done online, and they had a whole day to do them as opposed to the standard three hours. So I asked the obvious question, “Did you all cheat and share answers?” Their response, “Of course!”. And for multiple papers, too.

I’m enthusiastic about the refreshing ways many of the younger generation view things.
Often more conceptual and forward thinking in my experience.

Wigtown sounds like a wonderful place to buy books made by someone else.
But if you actually want to craft something beautiful with your own hands, I suggest you go north and visit the Vintage Paper Company in Stromness. There you will find their own handmade paper , together with vintage TH Saunders banknote, Whatman, I Taylor GR and various sheets of 18th century French paper.

I’d love to get my hands on some and ink up my cast iron Press that once proofed for the Washington Post.

Have you read Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don’t: How It Happens and What You Can Do About It (published1995), by Mary Leonhardt? Superb.

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