Thursday, March 27, 2008

Alan Bennett on Books and Reading

Alan Bennett’s novella, The Uncommon Reader, has these and many more wonderful insights into the value of books and the joy of reading:

Briefing and Reading
Queen Elizabeth, who is developing a voracious appetite for books, points out an important distinction to her equerry, Sir Kevin, when he is about to give her a ‘briefing’:
“‘Of Course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. Briefing is terse, factual, and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’” (21-22)

Other Worlds
Her Majesty to Sir Kevin:
“‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds.’” (29)

The Appeal of Reading
The Queen is reflecting on her new passion for reading:
“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference; there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included…” (30)

“Books did not defer. All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognized with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized.” (31)

Reading Appears Selfish
Sir Kevin is not positive about the Queen spending so much time reading and he expresses this objection:
“‘To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘if the pursuit itself were less…selfish.’” (44)

Reading for Pleasure
Sir Kevin wonders if Her Majesty might connect her passion for reading with a big cause like lifting literacy rates in England and the world:
“‘One reads for pleasure,’ said the Queen, ‘It is not a public duty.’” (44)

Source: Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

A review of The Uncommon Reader is posted at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: “when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognized with the crowds.”