Abstract The present day decrease in reading skills is not just a remediable breakdown in education, but is one sign of an extensive and probably irreversible transition of the culture from print to electronics. The change in the eighteenth century from a still predominantly oral to a full Gutenberg culture, as focused in the reading life of Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), shows that radical changes in so central a cultural activity as the means by which reliable information is acquired destabilize the established social order and disorient the individual's sense of himself or herself in relation to the world. The resulting anxieties were resolved by the creation of new myths of reading, as in Boswell's portrait of Johnson the omnivorous reader, and the construction of a new social role for readers, Johnson's famous ‘common reader’. The contemporary ‘literacy crisis’—too little rather than, as in the eighteenth century, too much reading—accompanying the shift from print to electronics also shows extensive disturbances, some of them fortuitous, paradoxical or unanticipated, such as the disintegration of acid-paper books, overproduction—not a shortage—of material to be read, deconstructive types of literary criticism that provide apologetics for inaccurate and incomplete reading, and the new economics of publishing. The eighteenth century example does not predict what will happen in the electronic future but gives a sense of the range and the anxieties, social and psychological, that will be encountered.