John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters came out around the time I got my first university job. It made a formative impression at an impressionable period of my life. It was not a book title (with that prejudicial ‘men only’ implication) that would easily slip past the editorial committee nowadays but it expressed a cultural fact. High literacy, of the kind Gross honoured in 1969, was historically masculine and clubbish. One aspired to join that club – even though, as Gross’s Gibbonesque title indicated, the genus was headed for extinction.