Maragaret Renkl’s Beautiful Op-Ed on the Love of Shared Books

Courtesy of The New York Times
September 26, 2022

The Joy of Finding People Who Love the Same Books You Do

NASHVILLE — I used to think of myself as a minor sort of Anglophile. As a child I knew the names of all six wives of Henry VIII — and other random details of English royal history — because I loved “Masterpiece Theater.” In college I watched the courtship of Charles and Diana in real time. Nearly 40 years later, I watched their Netflix counterparts make the same calamitous mistake in “The Crown.” And yet, of the nonstop television coverage of the actual queen’s actual death, I watched not a single minute. Well, she was old, I thought. She had a good run. So much for being an Anglophile.

Then I saw a picture of the royal corgis waiting for their queen’s funeral procession, and my cold American heart melted just a tiny bit.

Those sad corgis sent me to my bookcase thinking of a line at the beginning of “The Uncommon Reader,” a moving and hilarious novella by the British playwright Alan Bennett: “It was the dogs’ fault.”

I read the book again that night. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, unreadable by monarchical design, was never as real to me as Mr. Bennett’s out-of-touch sovereign who falls in love with reading very late in life, just in time to become a compassionate human being, a fully human human being. Here was a queen I could mourn.

This is what great writing has always done for readers. It can transport us and delight us, yes, but it can also open our hearts. “Books are not about passing the time,” the royal convert declares. “They’re about other lives. Other worlds.” The only real way to walk in another person’s shoes is to read another’s person’s story.

You are already the sort of reader who is drawn to an essay about reading, so Mr. Bennett’s queen is surely telling you only what you already know, what every passionate reader knows. Great fiction is a lie that teaches us the truth. Reading history is how we keep from repeating the past. “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,” as the American poet William Carlos Williams so memorably noted. Whatever the genre, reading transforms the reader.


Read the full story here.