Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Quote ... Unquote"

While in Windsor last week my friend Peg and I stopped by at Waterstone's on the High Street. Most of the stores were having sales and they were not exception: a fine selection of books: "3 for 2 - Offer applies to stickered items only." Peg was able to find two books of a series she had been reading that were unavailable in Canada and generously offered me the third. I wandered through the stacks and finally settled on a slim 120 page novella by Alan Bennett.

I've adored Bennett since I first saw him in Beyond the Fringe as the "My Brother Esau is an hairy man" vicar. And as a playwright and author he is - IMHO - one of the living greats. His Talking Heads series of monologues, The Madness of George III*, History Boys, 40 Years On et al have delighted with a wry sense of humour, the pure joy of language and the penetrating insight of a society gloriously (and often ingloriously) in decline.

"The Uncommon Reader" tells the apocryphal tale of Her Majesty's sudden passion for reading; a passion that turns both her world and the world around her upside down. As much as it is a wonderfully entertaining comic read, it is also Bennett's manifesto on the power of reading to change lives.
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. Actually,she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing quite what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. 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.
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
Profile Books - Faber and Faber

Its Bennett at his finest - funny and wise - and being Bennett the very last sentence is a glorious punch line.

*I am reminded that a Hollywood bigwig insisted that the title of the movie version remove the "III" as he felt people might not come to see it if they hadn't seen George I or George II.

14 aprile - Santa Liduina


Richard said...

I picked this up last year and loved it. It's hilarious. Glad you mentioned it. I need to reread it.

yellowdog granny said...

it just went on my list of books to read and will see if nancy can get it for our library.