reading, royalty, and the written word: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader

uncommonreader Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is one of those books that seemed to be everywhere at once.  Everywhere except the library, obviously, where the wait for the book was over a month. After reading it, I completely understood why it took so long to be returned: if the previous library-users have the same impulses I do, they waited to return the library copy until they had a copy of their own–because after reading this book once, I just knew it had to live in the house permanently.

Bennett’s Uncommon Reader is separated from the common man by years of breeding, tradition, and training.  She is, in fact, so far away from the common man that she rarely notices the emotions or reactions of those around her. Of course, when you are Queen of England, it must be easy to lose sight of what may happen to regular people so confusion about the rest of the world is perhaps to be expected. Confusion about libraries, though, and reading is a universal trait, I think, and one that Bennett mines with aplomb to create what is basically a love story about books and words.

The Queen, it appears, is not a reader.  (She explains that it is a hobby, and “one doesn’t have hobbies” and that she is a “doer” but there is, always, the feeling that no one ever encouraged her to try.) She has met, and dined with, many authors and celebrities of the written word but had never felt compelled to try the books.  In fact, her assumption that their work would be as boring as their conversation has actively prevented her from reaching out to reading.  Luckily, the Queen is nothing if not polite, and when she realizes that the polite thing to do would be to check out a book, well, she checks one out.

And this begins a charming story of self-discovery and power, of books and reading, of writing and the exercise of the mind. It is a pleasure to follow along as the Queen discovers new authors and old classics and gently reminisces about the authors she has met at various state dinners.  In fact, the most apt words, perhaps, for this book are gentle and charming.  Even with the heady freedom the Queen finds within the pages of her libraries, the book is filled with a quiet dignity that, whether true to life or not, is a pleasure to read and experience.

There is a temptation with this book to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing people about to read bits aloud.  This book is meant to be discussed and savoured. And, of course, re-read.  If only for bits like this one:

‘Can there be any greater pleasure,’ she confided in her neighbour, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, ‘than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen?’