Is the act of reading something that closes you off from others, because of its solitary nature?
Is it somehow selfish?
Can you read too much?
I read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and these are questions that it raises in the course of its short, but delightful, examination of a simple hypothesis – what if Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, was to begin reading as a hobby, which becomes (as anyone who loves reading knows that it can) an obsession.
There are quite a few people around the Queen who see her decision to read as dangerous, and her desire to talk about books with others as downright divisive. The assumption is that people will think she is being elitist, an intellectual snob, for reading books that they have not read. Some online comments (eg in Amazon reviews) about An uncommon reader say “I didn’t get it, I hadn’t read all the books it was talking about, what’s all the fuss?” Well, I haven’t read all the books it talks about, either, but I still think this is a great book. It describes a journey through literature and into the heart of humanity, and it doesn’t really matter whether the reader has chosen to go there via Shakespeare or Hemingway or Joyce or whomever.
Interestingly, the California Literary Review, in praising the book, calls it “an attack on the wearing of philistinism as a badge of honour”.
Am I a philistine because I haven’t read Proust or Thackeray?
Or would I only be one if I despised and derided those who had?
There was a bit of a backlash in the UK a couple of years ago, against public figures who were happy to admit that they “couldn’t do maths”. The question was asked, “would they be so happy to admit they couldn’t read” and, if not, why is a lack of basic numeracy seen as somehow “cool”. Where I think this argument slightly missed the point, was that while being able to read may be seen as necessary, choosing to read (especially to read novels for leisure or pleasure) is seen as rating on the cool-o-metre right next to saying “wow, I really enjoy calculus”.
A poll of Americans in 2007 indicated that the average number of books read per adult was 7, but that this needed to take into account that one in four adults did not read any books at all in the previous year.
That’s zero books. In a year. As they say: OMG.
Australians read a lot of newspapers and magazines. But we also read books and list reading as a favourite activity. Have a look at this page from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for some figures. It doesn’t give numbers of books read in a year, but does indicate what percentage of the surveyed population were reading in the previous week.
I can’t imagine not reading. I think the actual act of reading is solitary, but then being able to discuss what you’ve read is a great social activity. Is it selfish? Yes, probably. But then anything that we do for ourselves could be called selfish. The Guardian’s review of The uncommon reader calls the book a “manifesto for the potential of reading to change lives”. Should an investment in self-improvement, with all the resultant positive benefits to the greater good that this can deliver on, be seen as selfish? Or as elitist?
What do you think? Or, like me, do you not mind how it is seen – reading is still something you would happily choose to do?