Friday, 29 July 2011

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (3/5)

The back says: Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library’s weekly visits to the palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read thought it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And also, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen’s literary odyssey to a close.

I say: I wanted to like this far more than I did. Books about reading tend to catch my attention because I can recognise myself in the love of reading, and I often get new titles to add to my endless TBR pile. However, the narrative has to somehow be interesting enough for me to stay interested – otherwise it’s just a book chronicling someone’s reading habits, which is boring.

I want to know how the books make the person feel – not simply that they read them.

Unfortunately, this little novel did the latter more that than the former.

It was a nice premise for a book, but it didn’t do it for me. First of all, the Queen bored me to tears – or was it the plot? She starts reading, falls in love with it and of course wants to talk to everyone about it, but they don’t want to hear it (been there… actually, still there, hence the blog). Thus far I’m on board, because the Queen had some really nice thoughts and opinions going through her head about reading that I think any avid reader would agree with (heaven knows I’ve tried to explain this to my non-reading friends who simply refuse to get it).

“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. That’s always been my philosophy.” – p 6

“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.” – p 30

“You don’t put your life into books. You find it there.” – p 104

But then those around her try to get her to stop reading through various schemes; her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, explaining it thus:

“To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it if the pursuit itself were less… selfish.” – p 45

And then I’m obviously not going to give away the ending other than the fact that I found it disappointing. I’m going to end this list of quotes review with a few words that I’ve thought many a time (latest when I was on vacation and couldn’t wait to get home to read – I know, I know).

“It was reading, and love it though she did, there were times when she wished she had never opened a book and entered into other lives. It had spoiled her. Or spoiled for this, anyway.” – p 62/63


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