The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett
October 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
First published in the English in 2006
Sarah Waters is a very tough author to follow. After putting down the last book I read, I had trouble finding the right book to read next. I picked up quite a few big authors, too. I tried reading a few pages from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, then David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, but I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages of either one of those giants.
I was a little lost. I didn’t want to lose my “steam”, to give up the momentum I had found with reading Waters. I wanted to keep it up, the reading. Especially since I have more time on my hands these days. But I simply couldn’t identify the right book.
I found this little gem as I was cleaning and rearranging my book shelves. I don’t like to stack up my books, or have them in double rows. It stops me from getting at the book right at the bottom of the stack, which I am prone to want to do; and it also makes it that much easier to forget about the books that I have hidden in the back row, behind a second row of newer books.
So clearing the shelves as I was, I realised that I had started this book some time ago (I can’t remember when this was anymore, but I’m willing to bet it was more than a year ago that I last picked it up), but just never made it past page 3. It’s such a small book, and I thought, maybe the Queen can tell me what to read next.
It’s an amazing book. Alan Bennett has written this little piece in such a way that it felt regal and royal, yet close and warm at the same time. Sometimes it read like being privy to some high-level secret, like being allowed a glimpse into the mind of someone brilliant, but you’re not allowed to take away anything but your own memory of the experience.
The Queen, having never been an avid reader, is one day fortunate enough to come across a travelling library. She steps in and politely borrows a book. That’s how she became an uncommon reader, often times feeling sad and a little regretful that she hadn’t discovered reading much earlier, but still eager to catch up as much as she could.
There were many little nuggets of precious phrases scattered about in the book; words that not only spoke to the literary part of my brain, but also to the squishy parts of my heart. I could feel my spirits being lifted, as if I found someone who knew reading like I did, who could understand the many issues I had with reading too much, or not enough.
It’s such a small book, really. But I have a feeling I’ll keep coming back to this.
Here are some of the nuggets I mentioned:
‘Pass the time?’ said the Queen. ‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.’
The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not.
To her, though, nothing could have been more serious, and she felt about reading what some writers felt about writing, that it was impossible not to do it and that at this stage of her life she had been chosen to read as others were chosen to write.
One Scottish author was particularly alarming. Asked where his inspiration came from, he said fiercely: ‘It doesn’t come, Your Majesty. You have to go out and fetch it.’
‘But then books, as I’m sure you know, seldom prompt a course of action. Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book, as it were, closes the book.’