“’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 tenderize one.’” (The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennet)
One of my criteria for a good book is that it be ‘special’. Now, even if pressed, I don’t think that I could accurately define what it is that I mean by ‘special’, but I know it when I read it. It only takes thirty or so pages for me to declare a book to possess whatever these mysterious features are and, if the novel does not have them, or anything else to recommend it, I promptly put it down*. The Uncommon Reader can bear the weight of this title: It is something about Alan Bennett’s voice – it’s dry, witty, human and yet detached.
I always love a good book about reading because any random sentence both validates one’s current activity and prompts a sufficient amount of self-analysis. The ending of the The Uncommon Reader, however, seems to indicate that the purpose of reading is eventually to write, and of this I am not convinced. It seems to me as though the Queen simply loses her gumption and decides that writing would be more acceptable than reading. This, in itself, is an interesting question worth pondering over: Is writing more acceptable than reading? Yet, the final question goes more along these lines: Is writing a superior form of reading?
Unfortunately, another feeling besides satisfaction sounded clearly inside me upon finishing this delightful book: disappointment. What I want to read more than anything right now is the book that Alan Bennett says Queen Elizabeth will soon write. But that book doesn’t exist! I find myself in quite a pickle because I’ve never before wanted to read an imaginary book so ardently. For Bennett to describe a promised book in such vivid terms, without having the book actually written, is too cruel.
* Many a book has been thus discarded, and perhaps I shall eventually post about those preeminently disappointing among them.
Beverage: Some ice cold black tea does quite well here, especially during the Queens 80th birthday speech.
Reminds me… of Montaigne’s On Cannibals, another excellent essay about reading, although this one is slightly disguised.