'We have a less educated reading public,' said Howard Jacobson in the gloom of the Groucho Club. 'Men say they like to relax with a book after a hard day's work, and I'm seen by them as "work" rather than relaxation. Reading has become a demasculanised activity.'
This is no small tragedy. One could argue that our country's education system has failed, with the arbiters of learning - our intellectuals - having lost their nerve.
'The "Who are you to tell me what to read?" line of argument pervades,' continued HJ sadly. And it's a shock to the system to meet one of these emasculated brothers, his eyes clear, his plimsolls clean. He'll curl up brazenly upon a tube seat with Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, but he wouldn't be seen dead with a Hemingway or a Melville in his hands. Turn your back on all that has gone before, he tells himself. Begin again. The year is dot.
He has seemingly sworn an oath unto himself: take flight from learning. With paws vulcanised to his smart phone as images from last night's Wii game snake through his brain, he takes to the streets without a single original idea in his head. And because of him, this country's long history of autodidacticism will soon become a rumour.
No one is asking him to down his Wardour Street chopsticks and head out to Cuba to fish for marlin as did Hemingway, nor lace up a pair of 8oz mitts and go to work on a heavy bag as did Mailer. One only wants to discern why men now lay aside literary classics in favour of reading news headlines. Did this deterioration begin when modern man began to shave his chest and hate his hirsute self, rather than read some Jonathan Swift or Jane Austen? The argument being, they're worth reading ahead of Caitlin Moran because they wrote about life, the immensity of it, its all-consuming wondrousness.
All that can be stated with any certainty is that Joe Public is currently enjoying the fruits of 70 years of peacetime. He wants for nothing; not food, water, nor easy loving. Sensorially, the totality of his life is catered for with a click of a mouse. Novels are seen as difficult excursions that can only tax unprepared minds.
The modern man cares about the environment, but he does not worry himself about the atrophy of his mind. Intellectualism is out, ignorance is in. So be it. Where Mills & Boon romances were once tolerated for the jokes that they were, Fifty Shades of Grey is held by many to be of serious import because it entertains. The industry, therefore, is entertainment, not publishing.
Chick lit now rules the roost, but what beggars belief is the desire among men to read this rubbish, because up until very recently it was a badge of honour in male company to demonstrate you could formulate cogent arguments on matters ranging from theology to politics. And where you came from was of no relevance, nor was your class distinction. What mattered was that you could think, and from this grew an English individualism which we can now only lament.
'Lawrence Durrell? Never heard of him,' said a pubeless 'geezer' to me at a recent soirée. The herd can be vindictive if it feels its gossamer-light belief system is under threat.
With Jeremy Clarkson's typings having supplanted the prose of Betjeman as something to love, at whom can we point the finger of blame? Or is this a big city phenomenon made manifest by men intent on wooing the ranks of independent women who claim to be bored to tears by men of the old school? You know, the miner with a copy of Sillitoe in his back pocket, or the builder who liked to read Under Milk Wood on his break.
Male iconography is now something of extremes. With the rugby set (never the caveman sphere it is now sold as) at one end, and the fey prancing of Britain's Got Talent at the other, men of moderation and thought are lost and invisible in the middle, and as the great political ideas have died out (with one amorphous centre ground of nothingness becoming this country's political reality), so too have the ideas (that would have sprung from a vibrant society) been reduced to this curious flatlining pre-war culture into which feed the baubles and prejudices of the upper and lower orders, two camps happy to hedge their bets and keep the status quo.
All this has rendered the modern English male a neutered being who has fallen cataclysmically out of love with the written word, dumbed down to the nth degree.
Why say in one hundred words what you can say in one: awesome. It's the word on everyone's lips, issued with the same passion as a dog's bark, as one attempts to express positive appreciation.
And the Kindle is only exacerbating the situation; a gadget, by and large, which is bought by those - who have long been wary of novels - so that they may be seen to read on public transport. It's handy, they say. But if you love literature, you'd push a novel to work in a wheelbarrow if you had to. Any real reader knows that.
Hardy and Defoe, Dickens and Dostoevsky, Conrad and Roth: all unfashionable names that strike panic in the hearts of unlettered modern men. These new arrogant, primitive minds are outnumbering us readers. Has it really come to this: to be dumb is to be cool?
Let us hope not. A Booker prize-winning writer (who shall remain nameless) once told me that a man, should he go back to a woman's flat for a night of carnality, must only commit to the romp once he has perused her bookshelf. If there is a JK Rowling novel anywhere to be seen, he said, the man must leave immediately. 'This is,' he said, 'to let her know that reading the right books is important, very important.'
Perhaps this is the way forward, but if a Booker prize-winning writer's opinion is less valid than the unlettered Kindle owners who walk among us in this mixed-up world, there appears to be no hope for us at all.
Man, ever the pack animal, would now rather be led than lead. He's a softer man who expresses his hopes and fears unashamedly, unabashed, with the open-hearted passion of a woman, a man who would rather coalesce and submit, agree and empathise at the expense of assertive thinking. Men, these days, are making wonderful wives.
But things would never have come to this had our universities not been overrun by the barbarian elite of academe.
© Jason Holmes 2013 / email@example.com / @JasonAHolmes
Photograph by Daniel Horacio Agostini ℅ Flickr.com