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?
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.