Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 24, 2009

I always imagined Paradise to be a kind of library  — Jorge Luis Borges

It is my belief that when all other forms of entertainment begin to sap the mind, “reading” and “writing” will continue to stand up as the last bastions of recourse. Even between these two – reading is more democratic and accessible as compared to writing – for the latter demands a level of innate talent which is undemocratic in its distribution. What are the pleasures of reading? Why is it important? What does it do to us? What is the inherent journey of a progressive reader? and most importantly after reading what? –  these are some of the questions that are asked and answered in this wonderfully superb book “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

The uncommon reader here is none other than Queen Elizabeth of England and the book is about her exhilarating journey as a motivated self discoverer in the world of letters. In the process she comes to like and to build learned opinions about the works of some of the greatest and gifted writers including – Balzac, Turgenev, Proust, Hardy, Trollope, Henry James, Austen, Forester, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie…..  and many more. Written with love, compassion, a brilliantly refined sense of conversation and tongue in cheek humour, the book among others also takes a dig at the place of monarchy in the British system and the way it interfaces with the parliamentary politics.

However of greater value to me were the brilliant thoughts that Alan Bennett routes through the journeying queen. Consider a couple of them “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. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. ….Books did not defer…. 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 unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who has led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised“….. or…..

‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice chancellor, who concurred
‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one” …..that if reading softens one up, writing does the reverse. To write you have to be tough, do you not?’

Bennett also raises the most important question.. notwithstanding the pleasures, what should come after or accompany reading? It is here that Bennett appears to suggest that a meaningful and purposeful action that is beneficial to mankind should be the outcome – for reading as the queen realises at one point (and notes in her diary) ‘You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there’ — a truly pregnant thought

If I had my way, I would make this small but outstandingly elegant and joyous book a compulsory read for all children at school – in the hope that the culture of reading assumes a more robust hue than what it is today


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