Three novels about three women whose secret lives as readers are the truth of their existence: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; and An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. In Barbery’s book, the secret reader is a middle-aged concierge in a French apartment building. Gruff and stupid as far as the lodgers are concerned, secretly she’s a connoisseur of fine literature, art, music, and film. In Bennett’s book, the secret reader is the queen, whose accidental brush with a traveling library and a bibliophilic staffmember birth her as a reader in the senescence of her reign. And in Alameddine’s book, the secret reader is a Beiruti divorcee and former bookshop owner, whose hidden, private life is devoted to translating books into classical Arabic, unbeknownst to anyone. Three novels; three secret readers. Together these books justify me in declaring a sub-genre: the sub-genre of the secret reader.
All three secret readers are middle aged or elderly women. Two suffer the obscurity of poverty, and one the obscurity of fame. (Who is more invisible as a person than the figurehead of a dead empire?) Each of these secret readers is the sort of person that our producerist, patriarchal, youth- and sex-worshipping societies would write off as unimportant and insignificant. And yet, by reason of their secret lives as readers, they are more significant, in the proper sense of the word, than a dozen vapid CEOs, celebrities, or sports icons. For the secret readers, each deed and observation signifies, pointing beyond itself to the vast and echoing chamber of cultural memory in which they live. They are significant: but are their lives, therefore, important? The three novels I’ve mentioned almost seem calculated to pose the question of the importance of the reading life in its extreme form: they will be either a reductio ad absurdam or a final vindication of the curious way that some of us, we readers, choose to pour days and weeks of our lives into a strange, still, silent activity.
The secret readers in these three novels are nothing or they are everything.
To begin with, it’s true, she read with trepidation and some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarising what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. ‘I think of literature,’ she wrote, ‘as a vast country to the far border of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.’
— The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
All readers, even famous critics, are secret readers, because the reader’s reading life is always a secret life. It takes place within, at incommunicable depth and intensity. Passionate readers, though they may chatter happily about books, feel a constant, yearning sense of frustrated intimacy toward one another, all book chat is a flimsy rope bridge across the abyss of incommunicable experience.
If the reading life is so inescapably private, isn’t that privacy a mark against it?
Reading does little for your material prosperity or your social standing. That’s one obvious point all three of these novels is making. Notwithstanding the perennial article in Forbes about how top CEOs are set apart by their reading habits (they read newspapers and shitty self-help and pop science books, as a rule), most readers recoup materially neither the time they invest in reading nor the money they invest in books. Nor do readers necessarily get respect. From other readers, perhaps, a bit. But in the larger scheme of things, budgeting three hours a day to read, as I do, is an unambiguous social negative, a laughable affectation. People consider you “pretentious,” and laugh, and try to get away.
Reading — and I mean a life of reading, not the opportunistic reading of a single book to answer a specific question or to impress some passing constellation of peers or pedagogues — forces you to face up to an extremely difficult question: the value of an inner life.
Valuing private, incommunicable experience over social recognition or material prosperity is often a sign of madness. Kierkegaard goes so far as to associate an inexpressible inner life with the demonic.
Readers: insane or evil. What culmination or return on investment do they expect?
Blame Joyce and his Dubliners, which I adore, but do pity Mr. Joyce, because the only thing some writers understand from his masterpiece is epiphany, epiphany, and one more blasted epiphany. There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.
Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories.
I should send out letters to writers, writing programs, and publishers. You’re strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by bland book.
— An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine
The epiphany, arguably, is a specious attempt to pay off the insane, demonic investment of reading. I prefer to think of the closure or climax of stories in purely formal terms, the last stroke in an artificial pattern, a closing of the brackets of a code. Decision or effect answers a story question, and the satisfactions of such closure ought to be the satisfactions of form rather than “a false sense of temporary enlightenment.” So, with Alameddine’s secret reader, I dislike epiphanies.
This apparent digression within An Unecessary Woman to rant about epiphanies is actually highly relevant to the essential concern of the secret reader sub-genre. The payoff of individual narratives is not identical to the importance of reading. The concept of epiphany seeks a way out of the pointlessness and privacy of aesthetic experience and inner life. There is no way out. That’s why reading is private and inner. You have to come to terms with the privacy and innerness of reading or acknowledge that the whole things a waste of time.
It is with truths […] as with the ascent of a mountain. Every person who climbs Mont Blanc exerts the same identical muscles as the first man who reached the summit; all that the first climber can do is to encourage the others and lend them a helping hand. […] Each person’s own reason must work upon the materials afforded by that same person’s own experience. Knowledge comes only from within; all that comes from without is but questioning, or else it is mere authority. Now, the capacity of extracting the knowledge of general truth from our own consciousness, whether it be by simple observation, by that kind of self-observation which is called imagination…
— “On Genius,” by John Stuart Mill