Saturday, November 1, 2008

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader is a modern day fairytale about reading. The author Alan Bennett toys with a very unlikely possibility: what would happen if Her Majesty became a voracious reader. The Queen of England starts reading the likes of Proust, Henry James, Nabokov, T.S. Eliot, among many others. Reading ends up making her more introspective, and she realizes, reading is like a muscle, the more you read, the more you learn to enjoy it.

Consequently, her staff is not too happy about her new endeavor. They are worried, her reading would further alienate her from her subjects. Their concern, she shouldn't be doing something which her subjects are not too keen on. Reading is seen as an elitist activity. This part reminded me of the US politics. Poor Obama has been criticized of being an elitist both by Clinton (in the primaries) and McCain, because of his intelligence and eloquence. Based on modern day political wisdom, we want our leaders to sound stupid.

Moreover, reading is a symbol of status. People are judged based on the books they read. A few months ago, I read this essay in the New York Times called, It's Not You, It's Your Books. Basically if a guy has to impress a girl with his reading, he shouldn't be mentioning the names of middlebrow authors such as Dan Brown. An avid reader of Russian authors like Pushkin and Tolstoy would be considered irresistible among the highbrow book-nerds. So the old saying, never judge a book by its cover, could be rephrased to, never judge a reader by the books he or she reads. I guess, the act of reading is not just about losing oneself to the world one is not familiar with. Or learning about people's experiences and stories. Or even finding comfort in the knowledge that our personal struggles are very universal, and not so unique after all. But our choice of books tells others something about us. I am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, so maybe loving her books makes me a feminist. I also like reading books where the characters have conflicted-personalities. This doesn't mean I am conflicted (well, let's just hope not), but I just like complex characters.

This book, however, was not complex at all. It is a very quick read, arguing for the importance of reading. As the Queen mentions in the book, reading is an act anyone can do. It transcends cultural and social boundaries. All you need is a library card, and voila you have earned a free pass to an endless world of new adventures and knowledge. Reading is the least egocentric activity. However, the aforementioned article, contradicts this statement.

Reading to me is a personal experience, something we do alone. Most of us don't go to the movies alone, or watch the telly alone. But when we are reading, it is just us and the book we are flipping through. Sometimes these books make us cry and there are times they make us laugh out loud. I started reading Nick Hornby's 'Slam' last night, and the book has already made me snicker twice.

I don't know when reading became a status symbol, or why it is considered a boring and/or an elitist activity...


changetheworld360 said...

Sounds like a great read, and always, great post. I swear, my already never-ending book list is continuing to pile up b/c of all of your intriguing suggestions! It seems like I never have the time to read anymore.
Yes, reading is almost always a personal experience, although sometimes watching a movie or TV show alone is effective, particularly if it contains a lot of depth and aspects to ponder. (Or in my case, when no one else wants to be nerdy and watch those types. =D) I think reading shouldn't be considered egocentric, especially since it expands your knowledge base. Also, it makes you more open-minded and less ignorant to the world around you, kind of the opposite of egocentric.

Zany said...

Thanks for you comment =). I agree with your view regarding reading.

Honestly, let the list pile up. Once you are done high school, and done university, you would eventually have the time to read, especially on the commute.

Kia said...

This reminds me of a story I read about an actress (I think it was Julia Stiles) who dumped a boyfriend because he didn't like Steinbeck.

Book choices don't matter to me as much as newspaper choices. I can't help but judge people who read the Daily Mail for example (really trashy right-wing British newspaper).

Zany said...

You brought up an interesting point. I wouldn't able to tolerate someone who watches Fox News. That would be a deal-breaker right there.

Kia said...

You know I had no idea what Fox News was like. I don't have Fox at home but I was watching the election stuff when I was in Mexico and it is unbelievable how much they get away with! We have partisan newspapers in the UK but I'm not quite familiar with entire TV channels that can be so blatantly biased (and then say they're "fair and balanced"). I'm with you on this one.

Zany said...

Well apparently they are "fair and balanced". There is this website ( that claims, Fox News is too Liberal. I wonder what they think of MSNBC or CNN.