03 September 2013

A book is a device to ignite the imagination

From Alan Bennett's sprightly and appealing 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader, in which the Queen discovers her hitherto untapped love of books when she chances upon a mobile library bus in the palace grounds, here's a deft synopsis of the joys of reading from the fictionalised monarch:

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 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 had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between those covers she could go unrecognised. 
- Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader, London, 2006.
The real monarch's seeming lack of enthusiasm (or perhaps just lack of spare time) for literature is satirised in Peter Morgan's play The Audience, which depicts a royal holiday at Balmoral. The visiting Prime Minister Harold Wilson requests a book to demonstrate his prowess at rote memorisation; Her Majesty is momentarily nonplussed and has to telephone her staff to track one down. When it arrives, the only tome to hand is an old Prussian military text left over from Prince Albert's 19th century visits.

See also:
Books: Lucy Mangan on 2nd-hand bookshops, Guardian, 31 August 2013
Books: Clive James on Dan Brown's 'Inferno', 17 July 2013
Books: 'Il Postino', 14 February 2013
Books: 'The Day of the Locust', 20 October 2012
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