A beloved quote from The History Boys went viral this week, spread by a GIF image from the movie adaptation of Alan Bennett‘s 2004 play. This inspiring quote has been viewed nearly 400,000 times online:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
In the video embedded above, you can watch Richard Griffiths deliver those lines at the 1:34 mark. In the play, Bennett fictionalized his own days as a student at Leeds Modern School where a headmaster inspired eight boys to aspire to follow an ambitious academic course. Follow this PDF link to read more about the play’s history.
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At a certain stage of writing, I have great difficulty reading other fiction. But this is akin to saying “I have great difficulty breathing oxygen.” And when, as now, the intense writing stage stretches out somewhat longer than expected, I begin to get…squirrely. I’m crafting my own story while holding my breath. I crave a nice deep inhalation of fiction. Ha—I didn’t even realize I was spinning an inspiration metaphor until now. Inspire: “to stimulate to action,” “to fill with enlivening or exalting emotion,” “to breathe life into,” “to draw in air.”
There are a few, a very few, works of fiction that can mist past the boundaries my working mind puts up against other people’s stories when I’m deep inside my own. The Blue Castle. Rilla of Ingleside. Sometimes, but not always, Anne’s House of Dreams or Anne of the Island. (You may detect a pattern.) Betsy’s Wedding and the four high-school Betsy books, but not Betsy and the Great World—all the travel, I suppose, too many absorbing new places to take in. I can’t accommodate so many setting changes when I’m rooted to my own fictional world. Curiously, Middlemarch works, and the first third of Portrait of a Lady (but as soon as Isabel meets that snake Osmond, I must bail). Never Austen. Austen is a reward for finishing a novel. Sometimes L’Engle, but I have to be careful with her: her characters have an archness about them, a precociousness that works beautifully in her prose but I can’t risk it seeping into my own, where it would surely be too much sugar in the peas.
(I think House Like a Lotus was the book that made me realize that L’Engle’s characters, much as I adore them, are not exactly real people. At least—Meg was real, with her prickles and that ribbon of cynicism in her soul. And Vicky Austin, so sensitive you’re almost afraid to look at her askance. (Oh how I love Vicky.) But Polly, oh my. You know that scene at the beginning of the international conference when the well-traveled workers gather and sing, spontaneously going around the circle, each crooning Silent Night in his or her own language? And Polly, not missing a beat, jumps in—in German? Yeah, that’s when I realized that much as I enjoy Polly and am rooting for her, I don’t find her relatable. Which is fine. Isabel Archer isn’t terribly relatable either, but she (like Polly) is interesting, and that’s plenty. But I digress.)
One book that works like a charm for me these days is Alan Bennett’s gem, The Uncommon Reader. In my desperate state of fiction-deprivation, I turned to it again two nights ago, and it was like coming up from underwater and drawing a deep breath of air. This is a book I’ve highlighted practically from cover to cover—so many quotable quotes. (Those are but a few. The title of this post is another.)
As the Queen of England (that most unlikely of relatable characters) finds her way into fiction (well, and nonfiction, too; for her the discovery is the absorbing, altering joy of reading itself—whereas my current troubles are only with fiction; I inhale reams of nonfiction with no difficulty), so, too, am I drawn back into the romance of The Other Person’s Story. And so it was that when I finished Uncommon Reader last night,
For the last weeks, I have been cowering before a fairly simple revision of a book, Worse, it is one that a publisher wants. So stupid! And why? True, there were other matters -the family events, the school & festival visits, the sorting of the sock drawer – but all along I knew the thing was waiting. So where does this anxiety about writing come from?
Kath Langrish’s last & excellent post about her writing childhood intrigued me, because mine was definitely not like that. It was clear, from a young age, that writing was not a totally good thing to do. It was “good” in the sense that my English marks redeemed appalling maths results, but it was “not good” in the sense that writing time was not time well spent. One should be doing useful things instead. Writing, and writing stories at that – rather like the Queen’s reading of fiction in Alan Bennett’s “Uncommon Reader” – was undoubtedly selfish, and also secretive, which was also a suspect trait.
Writing fitted uncomfortably into a mix of military duty, puritanical work ethics, and an avoidance of complicated thought, no doubt to quieten the family complications boiling silently away. Writing was a too-indulgent dwelling on things, and telling stories was only one step away from lying. Only much later, buoyed by the encouragement of a generous children’s author, could I deal with some of these tensions.
Heavens, it was not Angela’s Ashes territory. There were pencils and paper. I did not have to scrawl on the backyard wall. Nevertheless, that subtle condemnation still sits there. Even now, I find myself leaving the door of my workroom open, just so no one can burst in on me.
But - good news - the dreaded revision has at last begun, and is going very well . . .
Author Alan Bennett trended on UK Twitter last night following a BBC2 Newsnight interview in which he reiterated his previously expressed view that closing libraries constitutes child abuse. Bennett told the programme that the lack of an opportunity to read damages a child forever. His views were enthusiastically espoused on Twitter, resulting in his name appearing among the most cited phrases in the UK after the programme.
Alan Bennett, Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope are among the authors donating books with personal inscriptions to an auction to raise funds for the National Literacy Trust (NLT).
Sixteen authors have donated titles, many from their own library, to the trust's Transforming Reads auction. Each book has been signed by the donor and includes an inscription explaining why they gave it to the auction and the importance of the book on their own life.