STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you've got a stack of books that you know you should read but you never do, maybe you have something in common with the queen of England - or, at least, with the queen as imagined by the writer Alan Bennett. He's the author of many books, and a play called "The History Boys," which became a movie.
In a book called "The Uncommon Reader," Bennett imagines Queen Elizabeth late in life, and not a big reader until she discovers how much she likes books. As Bennett describes it, she gets so absorbed in reading that even while riding in a carriage, she is reading a book with one hand while waving to her subjects with the other.
Mr. ALAN BENNETT (Author, "The Uncommon Reader"): (Reading) She had begun to perform her public duties with a perceived reluctance. She laid foundations to foundation stones with less elan, and what few ships there were to launch, she sent down the slipway with no more ceremony than a toy boat on a pond, her book always waiting.
INSKEEP: The author of this book, "The Uncommon Reader," is in London.
Mr. Bennett, welcome to the program.
Mr. BENNETT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: How does the queen's reading become a problem?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, she becomes more interested in things which, constitutionally, she's not supposed to be interested in. For instance, in foreign policy and the effects of foreign policy, and the government's propelling her into situations which she doesn't like, with all the heads of state whom she finds distasteful. And she just generally becomes much more aware of the political world and the world in generally, really.
INSKEEP: This is a woman who is a figurehead, who has to be a kind of cardboard person, and starts reading literature, reading books and reading about fictional characters and feeling a little more, sensing a little more of the world around her.
Mr. BENNETT: That's right. She starts having opinions and she starts, really for the first time her life, putting herself in other people's shoes. She'd never really imagined what it was like to be one of her subjects. And now, she does. And books really humanize her, I think.
INSKEEP: One of her servants says, I'm afraid Her Majesty is getting to be what is known as a handful.
Mr. BENNETT: Well, the courtiers don't like it because it means that she becomes much less manageable. She questions the things she has to do, and she's not the cipher, really, that's she's become, that they find it very hard to keep in a position really.
INSKEEP: Let's drop some names and some authors that you have - the queen of England reading. Nabokov comes to mind, Genet - let's go on, a few others?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, she - I mean, she reads the classics as well, but she starts off by reading Nancy Mitford. Now, Nancy Mitford wrote a very funny novel, "The Pursuit of Love." It was one of the first novels that I read, and I think probably I've made the queen's pattern of reading follow mine really. And so she starts off reading this book and is very enthusiastic about it. And it makes her laugh. And books have never made her laugh before. This startles Prince Philip, who passes her bedroom late at night, and hears her laughing and puts his head around the door and says, all right, old girl? And she said, oh yes, I'm reading. And he says, again? And he is very skeptical about reading -doesn't like it.
INSKEEP: So when you have the queen start with rather popular books or funny books and gradually work up to tougher and tougher literature, you're describing what actually happened to you?
Mr. BENNETT: Yes, to some extent. Well, I think it's what happens to everybody. Everybody starts off - you can't really start off with the harder classics. It's very unlikely that you, you know, you start off with lighter stuff and then you come to the harder stuff later. And as the queen says, reading is a muscle, and you develop the muscle as you read more and more.
INSKEEP: Although, as you point out, when the queen starts asking her subjects during her rounds and visits and formal appearances - what are you reading? It becomes clear that nobody is reading anything.
Mr. BENNETT: That's right. They're very nonplussed. And somebody hazards, the Bible, but that doesn't get much response from her. And then some of them say, oh, "Harry Potter," but this doesn't get much sympathy from her, either, because she doesn't like fantasy. And she just says, oh, I'm saving that for a rainy day and passes briskly on.
INSKEEP: So is the queen of England standing in for us all here?
Mr. BENNETT: Yes. I would have thought. She is really. Yes, that hadn't occurred to me. I suppose that is true. People will identify with her and I hope anybody who has gone through the process of learning how to read, particularly later in life, I hope they'll find that it's not simply about the queen. It's about them.
INSKEEP: This book is newly published in the United States. It's been out for a little while in England, which makes me wonder if you've heard anything from the queen.
Mr. BENNETT: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BENNETT: I don't think the queen will have read the book. But I - in any case, it would - that would be absolutely against the custom of the palace really. They would pretend to be above any such comments or any such speculations.
INSKEEP: And entirely aside from how they might pretend to be, why do you think the queen wouldn't read the book?
Mr. BENNETT: She's got better things to do probably.
INSKEEP: She might be rolling by in that carriage with your book in one hand and doing the royal wave with the other.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BENNETT: She might be, though, she might be too busy ruling. I don't - I somehow don't think she'll read the book.
INSKEEP: Well, Alan Bennett, it's been a pleasure talking with you.
Mr. BENNETT: Well, thank you. Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: He is the author of "The Uncommon Reader." It's available in the United States today. And you can read an excerpt at npr.org.
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