I can see how much was lost and it was considerable. Literature doesn't have the status and influence that it once had. A whole dimension may have been lost from people's thinking, but I have to wonder whether or not having all of those readers marking how different everything was from what it could be and dreaming of the day when everything would change was really preferable for society -- though it may have been great for art.
And it's not merely a "keep the lower classes down" thing, either. Plenty of middle class people who prided themselves on their literacy were willing to go to great extremes to maintain their superiority or to act to realize their own visions. Maybe it's better that such frustrations and tensions between aspirations and realities are less today.
Could we get back what we once had? Maybe it wasn't just that people could read and did read, but that reading was a very, very big thing in the lives of many of them. Today, you can get people to read, and even to read some very good things, but books aren't going to have the central and exalted place in the people's lives that they did a hundred years ago. At best, people's interest will be "reading plus" -- plus images, plus audio, plus immediate feedback, etc. -- and that makes for a very life and culture and way of looking at the world than just reading alone did.
We still get much of what reading provided people in those days -- wisdom, information, escape, contact with the wider world, new ways of looking at conditions around us -- but we get it in another form. Perhaps we are less inspired by pure literature or the appeal of the written word, but that may make us more critical and less susceptible to the power that the perversion of the word creates.
I don't demean or belittle efforts to get more people to read better books. It's good work and deserves success. I was just struck by how tied up so much of the early 20th century interest in reading was with political movements that we'd find questionable today, and thought a little discussion was in order.
I think the author's perspective creates that impression, rather than its being a characteristic of the phenomenon of reading in itself. The author might have chosen very different examples.
On the other hand, it is true that much, if not all, great literature makes some kind of social or political statement to the reader, even if it's not the statement the author originally intended. If a person reads widely, he will be exposed to many different points of view, which he can accept, reject, or modify according to his own reason and experiences.
And how do you think they came to be questionable? The same people who read them began to question them. And then they began to talk about those questions. Then they began to write against them.
When you read something it touches on a whole different level then just hearing or seeing. Reading forces thinking. It is not possible to read even the most mindless of books without thinking where it is quite possible to half hear or half watch something. If you can get them to talk and write about it you move up even higher on the thinking scale to critical thinking and analyst. Once you reach that point the questionable parts are quickly discarded.