A Right Royal Manifesto for Reading.
In his book, The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett the playwright, author, and humourist (to list just a few nouns attributed to him – many would also add ‘National Treasure’) imagines the Queen suddenly developing such an interest in reading it threatens to undermine her public duties and neglect her hitherto impeccable sartorial elegance.
The novel is short and very funny, capturing exactly the Queen as we think we know her (apart from the reading) and her mind bogglingly stuffy courtiers. These try, using a mix of management speak, which she hates, and snootiness – which she also detests, to bring her back to her pre-reading senses. Without success, as it happens – by the end she has decided to try her hand at writing.
It all starts when the Queen, chasing after her disobedient corgis, finds herself in a mobile library and feels obliged to borrow a book. She reads it, without much enjoyment, from cover to cover, and returns it the next week, telling the driver – librarian, “Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate.” She borrows another out of politeness, and soon becomes an addict; when her annoying private secretary comments on her ‘passing the time’ reading she quickly rebukes him.
“Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds.”
“I read, I think,” she says later, “because one has a duty to find out what people are like.”
For her, the appeal of books lies in their indifference. She starts to keep a log of her thoughts about reading, noting at various times that: books did not care who was reading them … All readers were equal … Literature is a commonwealth, letters a republic … Reading was anonymous, shared, and common. Hidden in the covers of a book she could roam unrecognised.
She often met authors as part of her public duties but was invariably disappointed, deciding that she preferred to get to know them from their writing. Especially, she notes, as many behaved as if they had done one a favour writing a book, rather than one had done them a favour reading it.
At first she felt a duty to approach each book without prejudice – for her there was no such thing as an improving book. She did find some authors, like Henry James, difficult to read initially, though as she became more adept, her appreciation of their work increased. After all, she observed, novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies. Reading, she later decided, was like a muscle that one could develop. Once difficult books could later be read with ease, and complex ideas understood – one didn’t put one’s life into books; one found it there.
One day, sitting next to a professor of creative writing, she nonplussed him with her enthusiasm for reading. “Books are wonderful, aren’t they?” she asked him, adding, “At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak, they tenderise one.”
In the real world, of course, we have no idea what the Queen reads for pleasure, and what she thinks of books and authors. But we get a pretty good idea of what Alan Bennet thinks from the words he puts into her mouth. As well as being funny, the novel is, as Edward Marriot from the Observer said, “A deadly serious manifesto for the potential of reading to change lives.”
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