Monday, December 13, 2010

The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella Alan Bennett's little book The Uncommon Reader is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  While you're reading this gentle novella, you might enjoy a cup of tea and a plate of watercress sandwiches. 

The story begins as the Queen of England is walking her corgis.  Her adventuresome dogs pull her into a bookmobile parked outside the palace.  Not wanting to be rude, she checks out a book--out of a sense of obligation rather than true interest.  She returns that book and borrows another--Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.  This second book turns the Queen into a passionate reader--that is, a Reader--who seeks out more and more books.

At first, the Queen is guided in her reading by her young kitchen assistant who soon becomes her amanuensis.  Because of his own interests, he steers her subtly to gay authors.  Some of the palace staff question whether this is appropriate and are curious if she even recognizes what she is reading.  Although some might feel this detail is little more than amusing, it highlights the disconnect between her vast experience of the world and her everyday sheltered life.

Although the Queen's life continues to be removed from the world around her, reading teaches her that this is not the whole story.  She discovers that "books did not defer.  All readers were equal."  The Queen is finally able to imagine being normal: the experience of reading is available to all and therefore "it was anonymous; it was shared; it was common."

Soon she becomes as obsessed about reading as any book blogger could be.  She neglects her duties and abandons her fastidiousness in order to cram in a few more pages.  My favorite fictional image of the fictional Queen is her waving to the gathered throngs from her carriage, all the while looking down at the pages in her lap. Apparently the current Queen has not discovered that strategy yet.

Not Reading But Waving

The palace assistants become concerned about the Queen's new obsession and try to nip it in the bud.  After she tucks her book under the carriage cushions while she attends a function, the assistants remove the book.  When she asks where it is, the assistants respond that it was a matter of security: sniffer dogs had confiscated it and the book had probably been exploded. 

"'Exploded?' said the Queen. 'But it was Anita Brookner.'"

Although the Queen's reading tastes are broad, she does have her limits. When people tell her they are reading Harry Potter,  she responds in her beautifully superior way, "Yes.  One is saving that for a rainy day."

Reading opens up a whole new perspective for the Queen on human nature, on relationships, and on emotion. The novels she consumes transform her and humanize her--and eventually give her a voice of her own. "Books have enriched my life in a way that one could never have expected.  But books can only take one so far," says the Queen, "and now I think it is time that from being a reader I become, or try to become, a writer."

*  *  *

I discovered this charming book after reading Thomas's review on My Porch.  Check out his blog if you do not know it already.  I especially love his discussion of whether or not there are American cozies.  Thanks, Thomas!  Also check out Teresa's post on Shelf Love.  She listened to the audiobook, read by the author.  I very much enjoyed the discussion in the comments after her post as well.


  1. I'm so pleased to hear that you enjoyed this. It is a wonderful little book. I'm now wanting a hard copy so I can revisit some of my favorite moments and pick out some favorite quotes. (That's the disadvantage of audio.)

  2. I'm not a great Alan Bennett fan but I may have to give this one a go.

  3. It's Teresa's review on Shelf Love that got me excited about this book, and I got the audio right away. Haven't listened to it yet because I've spent the last month listening to Lolita (still have at least an hour to go on it) but I'll get there eventually!

  4. Teresa: I read a library copy, and then bought a copy to give to my mother for the holidays. But I'm thinking about "forgetting" to give it to her and keeping it all for myself!

    Falaise: It is a very short read and if you hate it, you won't have wasted much time. I haven't read any other Bennett, so I'm afraid I can't tell you if it is similar to his other works. (Anybody else know?)

  5. Amanda: It is a perfect little read/listen for the holidays. Such an uplifting book. Hope you enjoy it!

  6. Certainly sounds like a charming book, thanks for the heads up. I love books about books, I'm glad it's a quick read and I'm sure a very interesting subject. Are all the books within the books real?

  7. Yep. Even the queen seems like the current queen--although clearly the story is completely fictional.

  8. I cannot explain why this is, but I definitely only read half of The Uncommon Reader. I don't remember disliking it. Maybe it was due back at the library? But it's so short...I would have just finished it! I should find a copy and finish it. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. Erin: While I think most people would like the book, it is especially nice for voracious readers who will completely identify with some of the Queen's feelings. There is a nice little turn at the end, too.

  10. Haha, I hadn't totally clicked with the reviews I'd read of this, but the fact that you include dialogue snippets really sold me on it. The one about Anita Brookner! I'll have to hunt this down, either on audio or in print form. Sounds delightful.

  11. I laughed so hard at the Brookner line! The whole book is sweet and gentle--and also full of some wonderful comments about being a reader that I'm sure you will identify with. Happy reading!

  12. I'm so delighted you enjoyed this - I loved it when I read it! It was recommended to me when I was in a reading slump, and it was the perfect book to get me out of it. And I love it when you describe the queen 'as obsessed about reading as any book blogger could be' - so true!!

  13. I love Alan Bennett. It's weird how little I've ever thought of the queen as a human being, living in England.

  14. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderDecember 13, 2010

    I thoroughly enjoued this book. Even the way it fit in my hands. It says something about an author when he captures both the interest of both the voracious, intellectual reader and the the slow, plot-driven reader in the family. I've continued to play with his observation that the Queen, from her rather extreme social position, the situational/contextual framing of Jane Austen's novels would make them rather opaque and uninteresting.

  15. Litlove: It makes so much sense that this book would be a wonderful way to emerge from a reading slump. It does such a lovely job at reminding us how magical reading can be.

    Ben: That is so true! Maybe that is why I didn't mind that she was being made into a character with a completely fictitious life. I thought that might bother the historian in me, but it didn't at all.

    Slow Plot: You know, even though you say you are a slow plot-driven reader, you have an uncanny ability to pull out some of the most interesting parts in literature and art. I think the insight into the Queen's blindness to social divisions among those beneath her is one of the most fascinating elements in the book.

  16. I liked this book a lot also-I thought it was somewhat flawed by a needless x rated remark by one of the minor characters-I posted on it and another book you might like 84, Charing Cross Road

  17. Yes--that line kind of stuck out, didn't it?

  18. This was one of my favorite books last year!

  19. I really liked this one too. It was a fun way to picture the queen.

  20. Lisa: It is wonderful, isn't it? I love reading short books that I know I will be referring to years from now.

    Avid: Wouldn't it be nice if a figure as public as the Queen really loved books and reading so much?!

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