On the flight from Washington, D.C. back to Houston, I conducted a thoroughly unscientific survey, but not so unscientific, I think, as to seriously distort reality. By the time we had reached cruising altitude, all the shutters had been lowered in the cabin, creating a pleasantly dim atmosphere, the sort that favors such contemplative pastimes as reading and thoughtful conversation, not to mention sleeping. I turned on the overhead light to resume reading American Ulysses: The Life of Ulysses S. Grant (Random House, 2016). The author, Ronald C. White, reports that Grant, while a cadet at West Point, was fond of reading the novels of the day – Bulwer, Cooper, Scott, Marryat. In his Personal Memoirs, Grant confesses: “Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of the trashy sort.” The West Point faculty, White notes, dismissed the reading of popular fiction as “frivolous.” Later, Grant read Oliver Twist aloud to his wife as it was serialized.
I could see only four reading lights turned on in the cabin, counting mine. This suggests people were not reading, or they were reading on electronic devices. We were seated just behind the wings, so on my walk to and from the bathroom at the rear of the plane, I could observe most of my fellow passengers. My survey confirmed the obvious conclusion: Except for two women of roughly my age, no one was reading a book. Nearly everyone was focused on a miniature screen, listening to music with earplugs or sleeping. The holdouts were even fewer than I expected.
Air travel is no longer a pleasant experience, and people have a right to amuse themselves and pass the time precisely as they wish. What I felt was not outrage or a pleasing sense of self-righteousness but sadness, a conviction that something has been lost and is not likely to be regained. How much do old-fashioned readers have in common with video-game players or Kindle users? What do we have to talk about? Theodore Dalrymple writes in “On the Shelf”:
“I have been obsessed by books all my life, and now I feel the melancholy that I suppose old artisans must once have felt when their trade became industrialised. All these years I have been on the wrong, or at least losing, side of history, a dinosaur that did not foresee its extinction.”