It seems like I have pulled this month’s titles out of a mix-and-match bin. Individually they are very striking, collectively they represent the ever-transient moods of my mind. There is a self-help type non-fiction, a witty jaunt by Alan Bennett, a Shakespeare play and one of the best books I have ever found at a book sale; a non-fiction about Bath read in the context of Jane Austen. Yeah, I really wasn’t kidding about the mix-and-match bin.
Quiet by Susan Cain
Throughout its introduction, I was prepared to throw this non-fiction about introverts out the window. Somewhere in the middle, it was being moved further away from windows. By the end, all I can think to say of Cain’s very loud book about quiet people is that it will probably be very eye-opening to extroverts, but a very plain and trivial book about daily life to introverts like me.
It is so hard to have to see Cain’s arguments spelt out explicitly, because for quiet people, they are numbingly obvious. Western schools and education are built around team projects, collaboration, presentation, verbalisation—children’s desks are arranged in pods, public speaking is assessed in children who have crippling phobias of the thing, tutorial discussions cater to the loudest speaker (who may in fact be talking nonsense with great conviction). In our jobs, we are asked to go through an arduous process of selection, personality testing, speaking in front of boards of unknown executives, working in open plan offices and being constantly interrupted by those with the strongest mien. It is not hard to see that introverts are playing two selves just to get by.
At the centre of Cain’s book is the argument that introverts can often perform better at listening, at observing and at concentrating than extroverts and have a predilection to underperform at these things if given over to the physical toll produced by a world who wants to be at parties instead of staying at home in a small corner with many cats for company.
Quiet has a ubiquitous passion to be un-quiet; to be a true example that gives force to Cain’s argument. The problem is that, like me, Cain has discovered so many examples that they end up dancing around the core argument, and each of her scrupulous depictions leads to a lack of focus. It’s as if Cain has been swinging blindly all day, at a very reachable piñata.
The real prize of this book is what is hidden beneath the surface, Cain has certainly cracked open the case, but she has left the full body of her manifesto up in the air, just out of reach.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett comes scarily close to how I wish to write one day. The Uncommon Reader is a combination of quirk, humour and comical brevity. However, hidden beneath this top soil is a mass of deep themes and ideas (if you care to look for them) and each are conveyed by Alan Bennett in the kindest way possible; they are bricked over with humour—presumably as a means of dealing with them.
The Queen of England (Queen Elizabeth the II), and her corgis (unnamed), interrupt a Mr Hutchings in his travelling library outside Buckingham Palace. The real-life possibility of this actually happening is wisely never touched upon. Though the Queen has no time for reading, she proceeds to take out a loan for a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Throughout the remainder of the novel, Queen Lizzie rediscovers her enate love of books and reading. Because of Proust, Beckett, Eliot, Austen, Trollope and Hardy, her attention is wrenched away from her more pressing royal duties. Her equerries end up having to dance around her in order to quell this ungodly passion.
Alan Bennett is consoling in some of the dilemmas that readers are liable to face. He sends out a blaring message: to be a reader is to be on an island, having to sit on one’s deepest thoughts. The Queen quickly discovers that her ideas are not remunerated and so, like every other reader, she must sit with her own pencil, underlining passages, scoring quotations into journals, writing down ideas and philosophies and then recording her own abstractions born from the ideas of others. The first books the Queen reads are slow and unfamiliar, when she comes back to them after having read a deal more, she finds them transfixing and easy. Bennett describes the process in a nutshell:
“that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she seemingly developed”
But here is the low-lying darkness:
“reading was not doing, that had always been the trouble.”
To me, reading is work, but when the floors need vacuuming, my mother sure doesn’t think so! For the Queen of England, reading is looked upon as the country’s kryptonite. What use, if any, can it possibly be to have a queen who reads instead of opening hospitals and country clubs?
The Uncommon Reader is a glorious romp with a beguiling charm that can only be found in an Alan Bennett production. You should feel very safe in picking this one up at your bookshop and taking it home with you to enjoy.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Murders, betrayal and sword fights. Macbeth is a darling treat! Again, this is Shakespeare in his prime of life. By this point, this man is so on top of his game that he flirts with the bounds of iambic pentameter—this has to be the 16th century equivalent of remixing. Shakespeare is guiding his actors directly through his scripts and dialogue, giving them spaces to act and giving us pauses to comprehend their leaden existence.
This wonderful play is mostly a tragedy. I say ‘mostly’ because there is one really-spot-on joke made by a child. Soon after, that child is brutally murdered. The play follows Macbeth, and when we first see him, he is won a battle, after which, he is greeted by three witches who tell him he will be the King of Scotland one day. Not bad luck for a Sunday afternoon! The three witches also prophesise that Macbeth’s close mate (Banquo) will have heirs who will sit on the throne. The problem is, the kingdom is governed by Duncan, and neither Macbeth nor Banquo are directly in line for the Scottish throne.
Macbeth is a strong character analysis, stronger even than Prospero and his magic staff in ‘The Tempest’. Both Macbeth and Banquo are given a hearty portion of ambition and having heard their fate, go on to use this ambition very differently. Even Lady Macbeth suffers from the knowledge of assurance; her actions are just as unique and interesting as our two front running victors of fortune. What this means is, we get to witness the complexity of existence and human nature in a profound little package of stage drama that still amazes and delights this reader four hundred years after it was written.
Macbeth is also fruitful in current pop culture easter eggs. In this play, you will find Shakespeare’s creation of the word ‘assassination’ which has single-handedly fuelled the Assassin’s Creed franchise for the last 10 years. The ‘Double, Double Toil and Trouble’ verse of the Witches was sung at the beginning of the third Harry Potter film. Macbeth is also one of those Shakespeare plays you will want to read if you’re interested in Shakespeare himself. The famous ‘dagger of the mind’ scene was Shakespeare’s way of bringing university studies to the common populace. At the time, scientists were trying to discover whether you could give birth to matter (and objects) by thinking hard enough about them in your mind. For me, these are the types of things that sizzle my already over-stimulated fangirl blood.
Macbeth is masterful and cruel but shows signs of fragility. Shakespeare breaks down the one-dimensional. He shares the inner most workings of man’s desire for power, and, most astonishingly, he has done so in style
A Charming Place: Bath in the Life and Novels of Jane Austen by Maggie Lane
Can someone please book me in for a surgery, I would like to have this book sewn onto my body. Oh Maggie Lane! I wish you had an internet presence so I could be your friend and follow you to the ends of the earth!
This book shows the fascinating social customs of Georgian era Bath, but more than this, these customs are explored expressly in the context of Jane Austen. This is possibly the most niche book written in the English language.
Lane highlights parts of Jane’s letters to Cassandra as well as discussing some of the finer, easily-missed nuances of the two Bath novels—Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. This book will guide you through ‘Shopping’, ‘Walks and Drives’ and ‘Public Entertainment’ as well as my favourite section ‘House-hunting’. You will discover why Sir Walter prefers Camden place to the lower part of town and why Henrietta Musgrove would prefer a situation that does not involve Queen’s Square (which had grown out of fashion by the time Persuasion was written). I was fortunate enough to have visited Bath last year, staying in the ‘Miss Musgrove disapproved’ Queen’s Square where Jane Austen herself lived (!), and just a short walk away from the Jane Austen Centre. When Lane talks of Milsom Street or Pulteney Bridge, Bath Street, the Abbey, The Crescent or The Circus, I can picture them vividly from having walked there. It feels as if Lane has given me a priceless gift.
This is by far the best book I have ever found in a book sale. That is no exaggeration, it truly is. I can’t believe someone was heartless enough to have forsaken it, and I can’t believe my good luck at having found it.