As a former English teacher, I know more than a few people would agree with Queen Elizabeth’s character’s comment early in “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett that reading is a “duty.”
Countless others — myself included — would concur instead with the queen’s later realization that reading is actually many different things. She refers to it, for example, as a muscle. She also discovers it is an engrossing, often-entertaining avenue by which to explore worlds — real and imaginary — other than the one currently inhabited by the reader.
I know the latter has always been true for me. I was blessed to have many wonderful teachers I adored at my elementary school here in Cape Girardeau. Yet, I still enjoyed taking breaks from timed multiplication tests or handwriting worksheets by opening the pages of a Ludwig Bemelmans’ book and joining Madeline and 11 other boarding-school students in Paris while reading the “Madeline” series.
Similarly, while I might have been physically sitting on a quilt in the backyard of my home’s on a quiet street in America’s Heartland, with the turn of a page, I was transported to the grounds of the magnificent Misselthwaite Manor. Our large, grassy yard and quite ordinary swingset were replaced by stone walls with a locked gate, behind which could be found a long-neglected garden waiting to be brought back to life, all while I read “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Fortunately, it isn’t just a setting that can be altered through reading.
As a socially-awkward young girl who spent considerable time and effort trying to fit in — and often failing spectacularly to do so — it was a welcome relief to discover within the pages of books similarly-challenged girls of my age, including Anne Shirley in the “Anne of Green Gables” series by LM Montgomery or Jo March in “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott and enter their lives, albeit temporarily.
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My own faux pas inevitably resulted in lingering embarrassment. As a result, it was refreshing to “refreshing” with Anne the horror of accidentally causing a “bosom friend” to become highly intoxicated and deemed off-limits by her mother, only to later be vindicated and even lauded after heroically saving the life of the bosom friend’s baby sister.
And geeky tomboy that I was, it was a joy to step into the life of the fictional tomboy Jo, who, despite her tendency to misspeak and misstep, was beloved by her three socially-adept sisters well-versed in the feminine arts and also totally accepted just as she was by her equally-gracious mother.
After months and years of reading books, Bennett’s Queen Elizabeth determines that while reading had definitely enriched her life, it had dominated it to the point that she had lost her purpose. She ultimately concludes, “You don’t put your life into books. You find it there.”
While I believe she is right, I’ve come to learn you find more than that. It is in reading that you find your life, but it is also in reading where you find what you need in order to not only survive that life, but to step out and live it to its fullest.
A duty? Sometimes, perhaps. But always a privilege and an adventure.
Some topics we’ll discuss in our Facebook Live discussion in “The Best Books” discussion group on Nov. 8 at 4:30 pm are:
°In what ways did you relate to the queen’s obsession with books in “The Uncommon Reader?”
°As the queen reads more books, she starts to see those around her with more empathy. Do you believe reading helps foster empathy and a better understanding of others?
°One quote from “The Uncommon Reader” states, “You don’t put your life into you books, you find it there.” What does that statement mean to you?
Our December selection, which we’ll begin chatting about in our The Best Books Club group on Facebook next week, as well as in our Facebook Live talk at 4:30 pm Tuesday, Dec. 13, is “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.
This book offers many things to talk about, including second chances, redemption, regrets, legacies, our responsibility to others — particularly the less fortunate — and the definition of a well-lived life.
Come join us at “The Best Books Club” Facebook page, and jump into the discussion!
Patti Miinch, a resident of Cape Girardeau, is an author, mother and mother-in-law of two, grandmother of three and retired educator; While she has many loves, spending time with her family, sports, travel and reading top the list.