May 2, 2019

The first I knew that anything was up was when my old friend Andy Miller slid into my DMs, as the young people say, on Tuesday. He was courteously alerting me to his role in a Twitterstorm, and my very collateral role in it – in that he’d mentioned online that he reviews books for the section I edit in The Spectator.

The storm started when Andy, as he does most months, posted a photograph of the pile of books he’d read that month. It was a big pile – 21 books in all, including a couple of Daniel Defoes, a couple by Toni Morrison, a couple of early Heaney collections, Beckett’s Murphy, Joyce’s Dubliners, novels by Dickens, Muriel Spark and Carson McCullers, and – Andy being no snob – an old Choose Your Own Adventurebook. He pronounced that, narrowly, his favourite had been Moll Flanders.

Andy reads a lot, and seriously. He’s the author of a fine memoir about his adventures in the canon called The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life. He co-hosts the books podcast Backlisted. And he writes for me, too. So what was the problem? The problem was that the Sky TV newsman Adam Boulton had quote-tweeted Andy and written: “Well done. Do you have a job or a family?” And this innocuous response opened the gates of social media hell.

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We’re used to Political Twitter being a little bit frisky, obviously. Anyone with a view on trans inclusion, anti-Semitism or Greta Thunberg can tend to expect a bucket of the stinky stuff in their replies.

But Book Twitter? With the exception of the odd flurry of spite directed at Will Self, Bret Easton Ellis, unpaid speaking engagements or those horrible impossible-to-open plastic jiffy bags that Penguin Random House has taken to using, Book Twitter is a benign sort of place. You’ll see launches and prize wins congratulated, new books bigged up, reissues of old favourites trumpeted, podcasts shared, and wry allusions to one’s biscuits-eaten/words-written ratio.

But, lordy be: this was something else. A positive torrent of abuse, sarcasm and de haut en bas derision directed at Adam Boulton. “Blimey, that’s an inane response,” was one of the milder replies. “Well done. Do you have any friends?” asked another. Another: “Remember when journalists were well read & literate? Anyone?”

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The split was about 70% people who’d had the witty idea that reading was something that could be done instead of watching Adam Boulton on Sky TV, and 30% eye-rolling/monkey sniffing poo reaction gifs.

Even established writers piled in. “Gosh, Adam, I expect you’re much too busy and important ever to do something as pointless as reading,” replied Lissa Evans. “Reading gives you empathy, Adam,” was the view of the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce; though to be fair, he reconsidered his line on rereading Mr Boulton’s tweet.

There was a subcategory of tweets that combined condescension with naked showing off. Their basic message was: you clot – if you read as much as me you’d know that 21 books in a month is NOTHING. “Only nineteen books. That’s barely half a month’s reading for people who, you know, read. It’s as if you don’t, you know, read.”

But most of the replies just settled for denigrating Mr Boulton’s mind, body, age and profession. A selection: “Imagine being Adam Boulton. It must be bloody awful.” “Said the man who gets paid to read out loud a script that someone else has written.” “Code red snidey gitness.” “Pompous walrus.” “Retire to tend to your neck flab.” “Intellectually bankrupt.” “Utterly obnoxious.” “Low-level bully.” “Redefined what it is to be a smarmy git.” “Have you read any-fucking-thing lately, you philistine prick?” Or, simply: “Adam’s a cunt.”

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What in heaven’s name was going on? Were these all responses to the same tweet from Adam Boulton? The one that congratulated Andy on his reading and – perhaps a little teasingly – wondered how he found the time? Not: “clearly you have no job or family”. Just: “do you have a job or family?” Yet this prompted something like the rage of Caliban from the ordinarily peaceful people of Book Twitter.

Mr Boulton’s question wasn’t even unreasonable. Reading a lot of books, especially if you do it properly, does take a lot of time. It’s perfectly fair to wonder politely how someone who gets through nearly a book a day finds that time. Like Andy, I read professionally as a books-page editor, reviewer and occasional prize judge, and when I have to hit the one-or-two-books a day rate, that cuts into family and work time. I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t part of my job.

I marvel at friends who read much more than me, and, like Mr Boulton, wonder how they manage. Philip Hensher, for instance, is not only vastly better read than me but knows all about art and music too: I unworthily suspect that not having children gives him a head start, though reading faster and being cleverer and being older probably help too. Whatever. Andy’s pile was impressive and Mr Boulton was, quite properly, registering that he was impressed.

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What we saw in response, is the weaponisation of cultural sanctimony: people so keen to advertise their credentials as book-lovers that they’ll sneer at someone who dares to be impressed by a 21-book month as a philistine.

But reading is not just an improving idea you can use to mark yourself out as a cultured person. It’s a practical activity. If you read a page a minute, that’s six hours or so for the average novel. Your personal circumstances will make a difference. Real readers – like, I suspect, Adam Boulton – know this.

This isn’t just a trivial Twitterstorm. The reaction, as I read it, shows just how deeply what social psychologists call “group polarisation” now affects every corner of our online interactions. Think of this spat on Book Twitter not so much as the canary in the coalmine, but as the canary which drops off its perch in the parlour of a blameless widow-lady a mile or two from the coalmine itself: the toxic gases have spread that far and that fast.

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We’re in a situation where the totemic idea of something – be it allyship, socialism, freedom of speech or, now, even the enjoyment of curling up with a good book – is so cherished, and the group identities it nourishes so invested in, that it is held to license any amount of invective. It removes the trouble of thinking individual cases through, and it gives you permission to insult strangers – competitively to insult strangers – in public with not hesitancy but pride.

It also leads me to the suspicion, in this case, that a portion of Book Twitter loves the idea of being keen on books rather more than it loves books themselves. And that’s the philistinism. These people, I think, might benefit from taking a leaf out of Andy Miller’s book, stop flaming TV presenters on social media, and read a damn novel.