The Uncommon Reader

At the library the other day I couldn’t resist picking up Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader, and I devoured it over the course of an afternoon. It tells the story of how the Queen learns to love reading, opening with a funny scene where she asks the president of France about Jean Genet only to get a rather blank look in response, and from there moving back in time to the point where she stumbles across a mobile library near Buckingham Palace. She had always read, of course, “as one did,” but was not a book-lover: “liking books was something she left to other people.” Out of politeness, however, she picks out a book to borrow, an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. She doesn’t like it particularly, but she borrows another one, this time Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. She’s optimistic because, as the narrator says, “novels seldom come as well-connected as this.”

She loves the book, and from there goes on to become a voracious reader, picking up books indiscriminately at first and more knowledgeably later on. She finds a mentor in Norman a palace page and learns the joy of talking about books with fellow book lovers. She soon begins to find it hard to do the things she used to do without complaint; receptions and parades and parliament openings now become merely distractions from her reading and she begins to run late, having trouble tearing herself away from her book. She learns to read and wave to the crowd at the same time while she is driven by in her car.

One of the things I found charming about the book is the way it describes what it’s like to love reading. The fact that the main character is the Queen makes the story especially amusing, but the story in its basics could describe many people. Reading is something that can take over one’s life; it changes the way one thinks and acts, and one’s relationship to it changes over time:

To begin with … 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 summarizing 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 corners of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.”

She begins to develop her own taste in books, wondering:

Am I alone … in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?

and:

I can see why Dr. Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?

While she shares many characteristics with other, more ordinary readers, she is an uncommon reader, after all, and some of her insights come from her unique position. She’s particularly drawn to the democratic nature of reading:

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.

She loves the way she is anonymous when she is reading; the book doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t care.

Her reading gets her into a little bit of trouble, though; no one in the palace likes the fact that she reads, and her private secretary and her aides are suspicious of the new development. One day her private secretary, Sir Kevin, tries unsuccessfully to explain why:

“I feel, ma’am, that while not exactly elitist it sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.”

“Exclude? Surely most people can read.”

“They can read, ma’am, but I’m not sure that they do.”

“Then, Sir Kevin, I am setting them a good example.”

Although her servants hide her books and her secretary tries to separate her from Norman, her reading friend, they can’t make her lose her passion for reading. She’s hooked and that’s all there is to it.

I loved the way the Queen comes across as innocent and inexperienced, in spite of her years on the throne; she’s also shrewd, though, and open-minded, ready to experience with pleasure whatever comes her way. She’s a sad figure, too, one who only late in life discovers a pleasure she now realizes she could have enjoyed for many years past. She’s not one to dwell on lost time, though, and she simply relishes the pleasure of reading all the more while she can.

The book is witty and its sense of humor is dry. In my opinion, Bennett gets the tone exactly right — it’s light and fun and charming, but it’s also got some interesting ideas about the way reading can enhance and disrupt any person’s life, common or not.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “The Uncommon Reader

  1. I think I’ll move it to the top of my TBR list. It sounds like so much fun.

  2. I’m on the waiting list for this one at the library, and I’m anticipating it all the more eagerly after reading your thoughts on it.

  3. verbivore

    This sounds like a perfectly fun read. And I love the passage you quote about reading being a vast country you’ll never quite be able to explore as much as you would like. That seems wonderfully true, doesn’t it?

  4. I’ve heard so many good things about this book, I really should find it in the library. I totally understand that feeling of “never catching up”! :)

  5. Well, as it happens, the President of France is having lunch with the Queen at Windsor Castle even as I write. I do wonder what the conversation is about?

  6. I read this a while back and absolutely loved it. I think that most book lovers will feel pretty much the same way about this book. Bennett does such a good job capturing the true nature of a bibliophile. I always find that much of life gets in the way of my reading. :)

  7. LK

    I love the excerpts you posted. (Why not give Henry James a talking to, indeed?) Thanks for sharing.

  8. This book really is fun – but in a gentle way, which shows a great respect for HM. But Bennett doesn’t compromise on the literary references! My only quibble was the price tag they gave such a small book – but my dilemma was solved when my Aunt bought it for me!

  9. I thought it was a wonderful read as well, although I’ll have to disagree about Henry James!

    I’ve since read Four Tales by Alan Bennett and found them (nearly) as good.

  10. Yay! Charming is the perfect description for this book. It was such a perfect little morsel. I loved how she figured out how to read while it looked like she was waving to the crowds. Definitely something an avid reader with a busy life would learn how to do!

  11. What a fun book, I can’t wait to read it. Thank you for the wonderful post. I thought the Queen read a lot…it’s not like she’s a party animal or anything :>)

    I will pick this up as soon as I finish my current wonderful find. It’s called A Place To Belong, by Paul Miller. It’s somewhere between “To Kill A Mockingbird” and an American version of “Angela’s Ashes”. A wonderful story about a little boy who grows up in a horrendous childhood and how he amazingly grows up and learns understanding and forgiveness. I’m recommending it to all my book friends, (maybe I should email the Queen!) Don’t forget to have at least one box of tissues on hand while you’re reading this book.

    Thank you for the post. I will be sure to read about the Queen reading!

    Mary :>)

  12. musingsfromthesofa

    Bless Alan Bennett. I am very fond of his quiet humour. Another book for the list.

  13. Oh, I looked for this on at the library the other day, and they did not have it. Now, I’m more eager than ever to read it!

  14. Chartroose — yes, it is! I hope you enjoy it.

    Kate — I hope you enjoy it, and I certainly look forward to hearing what you think of it!

    Verbivore — oh, very true; I’m overwhelmed by it quite frequently!

    Danielle — I’m quite certain you’d enjoy it!

    Ann — oh, yes, I’m curious too! And I wonder if the Queen knows about Bennett’s book …

    Lisa — yes, that’s it — it appeals to book lovers of all types. The real fun of the book is the way it describes being in love with reading.

    LK — I know the feeling of being frustrated with James, even though I’d want to defend him, at least some of the time!

    Simon — and my dilemma was solved by getting the book from the library! You’re right — the book does show respect for the Queen, even as it treats her lightly.

    Sarah — oh, that’s good to know about Bennett’s Four Tales. I’ll keep my eyes open for them.

    Stefanie — yes, little details like the waving bit are wonderful, aren’t they?

    Mary — maybe she does, who knows?

    Musings — quiet humor is a good way to put it. I’m quite sure you’d like this one.

    Jenclair — I hope you are able to get your hands on a copy!

  15. This one’s been making the rounds in the blogosphere, but your post is the one that has convinced me to move it up to page one of the TBR tome.

  16. Must read this! Loved Stefanie’s review of it, and now I love yours too!

  17. Emily and Litlove — I’m certain you’ll fall in love with it if you do give it a try!

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