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.
The only shortcoming of this vehicle for transformation is that it almost always transforms in solitude. This is also one of its great pleasures: to enter a room alone, book in hand, and soon find that you aren’t alone at all. But to read something you love is to become — instantly, like Mr. Bennett’s Elizabeth — a missionary. You shove that book into a beloved’s hands. You harangue your book club to choose it though it isn’t your turn to choose. You are desperate for somebody to talk with about it. (If you’ve read “The Uncommon Reader,” here, come sit by me.)
In the absence of an actual person who shares your love — or your confusion, or your despair, or your fill-in-your-emotional-or-intellectual-state — #bookstagram or #booktok will have to do, poor approximations of human contact as those platforms, and all online platforms, inevitably are.
That’s been the case, at least, during the pandemic, when so many bookstores were shuttered and so many book festivals moved the whole show online. An online author event is a thousand times better than no opportunity at all to hear writers talk about their new books. Online events are also very democratic, available to people who live nowhere near a bookstore or a book festival, or whose health doesn’t permit public outings. For the rest of my life, I will be grateful to booksellers and festival organizers for finding so many ways to bring writers to us during a time when we were all stuck inside.
But what of the other readers? I enjoy hearing writers talk about their books, even onscreen, but I have missed the other readers. I have so much missed sitting in an audience with people who love the same authors I love, to hear a conversation — perhaps even raising my hand and joining the conversation — about a book that has made me see the world, or myself, just a bit differently.
To be read to is a form of holiness. A hush falls over the chattering, rustling crowd. Everyone grows still, giving themselves over to the spell that carefully chosen words can cast. It’s a little like being a child, settling on the classroom rug and waiting for your teacher to read the next chapter of an absorbing story.
Thank God book festivals are back this year, seemingly none the weaker for their forays into cyberspace. In fact, they may be stronger than ever, if only because so many of them now include livestreamed or recorded sessions that allow distant readers to tune in. Book festivals are a year-round joy, but fall is their high season — just look at this list from Bookreporter! — which only makes sense: Fall is publishing’s high season, too, and many of the most anticipated books of the year are coming out right now.
I’ve been to book festivals as a writer, but I’m not traveling with a new book this year, so I will be back at the Southern Festival of Books, my hometown festival, mainly as a reader. This book festival and I got to Nashville at nearly the same time — I in 1987, the festival in 1989 — and it is no exaggeration to say that it has been a crucial part of my entire adult life.
As a high school teacher, I would take my students to meet some of the storied writers on their school reading lists. As a mother, I took my own children to hear their favorites. During the time when I worked as a freelance editor for Humanities Tennessee, which hosts the book festival each year, I came to understand just how much work it takes to put on a literary event with something to offer every kind of reader, and tiny future readers, too.
The food trucks, the live music, the picture-book characters come to life, the giant tent where festival authors’ books are for sale and the smaller tents where publishers and literary organizations showcase their work — I love them all. Being on the plaza at a book festival is like going to a party where you have something to talk about with every single person there, whether you already know them or not, the kind of party where, unbelievably, no one is a bore.
Most of all I love the quiet, indoor parts of this gathering, the hushed moments, in big rooms and small, when I can sit down with other readers and surrender to the magic spell of language and the transporting power of story. It is an experience, as Mr. Bennett’s reader-queen reflects, that is both common and shared. In this age of divisions, could anything be more necessary?
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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