In The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Queen Eliabeth I chances on a mobile library and, to be polite, takes out a couple of books, thereby starting herself on a literary road that takes unexpected turns, some humorous, some serious. To make such a prominent person (who is still alive and, given the longevitiy of the family, likely to be for another 20 years!) the main character of a work of fiction, takes guts.
Alan Bennett writes with wit, intelligence, and a talent for surprise. I’ve experienced this with his other novellas, an unexpected turn not only in plot, but in mood and atmosphere, and just when you think you know where he’s headed, there’s another twist. It’s delightful.
Queen Elizabeth’s literary taste and critical powers develop through the novella and this is something that I can relate to. Every time I go through a period when I can’t read because life, inner or outer, interferes with concentration and energy, I begin with short works and quick reads that get my reading muscles going again, leading to a craving for something more substantial (I did write meatier, but I’m a vegetarian you know).
I was thinking about this while warming up after ice skating today (indoor rink), and something occurred to me. Commercial fiction tends to be undemanding, pleasantly romantic, pleasantly scary or suspenceful without challenging most readers’ underlying assumptions and stereotypes. And that’s why it’s so successful. It’s fast food for the brain. Tasty but not extremely nutritious.
But this is what I wonder: is this taste encouraged because it doesn’t lead to questioning? At the end of The Uncommon Reader, the queen takes an unexpected and, to her elites, shocking step that has grown out of her intellectual and critical development through reading. I don’t mean that there is some secret conspiracy, but rather societies preserve their status quo through institutions and values that support things as they are.
If our educational system and media taught and encouraged critical thinking, who knows what could happen and how power might shift. No, it’s safer to feed pap to the masses, whether in books or food, keep them calm and fat. Bread and circuses, folks. Bread and circuses.
So keep blogging about books and don’t stop. Keep reading and broadening your horizons. For we are the quiet revolutionaries, the ones that think, listen, speak when our thoughts have germinated. Even when it seems least likely, even when publishers are determined to put out only repeats of books that are gobbled up like big Macs, we are the still, small voice that whispers, change is possible. Read and make up your own mind.