Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader: Charming, Witty, Wise

Uncommon Reader, Alan BennettI am so grateful to Simon (Savidge Reads) for giving me a copy of The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. What a little gem! Almost a short story at only 128 small pages, this was the perfect book to help me catch my breath after reading Celine Curiol’s intense Voice Over and Peter Carey’s 2001 Booker prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang.

An unexpected but quite believable premisem  The Uncommon Reader tells how one day Queen Elizabeth is out walking her corgis and stumbles upon a mobile library. Not wanting to seem rude, she borrows a book and although she gets off to a bit of a drab start with Ivy Compton Burnett, is soon hooked on books. She becomes an avid reader discovering author after author, with one book leading her to another, so much so that her passion takes over somewhat and she finds growing opposition to her new ‘hobby’ in the Palace.

As well as writing a beautiful little snapshot of imagined royal life, Bennett covers a surprisingly wide range of quite serious themes in The Uncommon Reader. Firstly there is discussion around whether reading is a solitary and selfish exercise. Certainly, the Queen’s private secretary – the horrible Sir Kevin – expresses concern about her new pursuit arguing that it is somehow elitist because not everyone reads. The Queen simply replies that she is setting a good example then, and later she considers that;

“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference. Books did not care who was reading them or rather one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.”

Certainly reading is a solitary pursuit but, perhaps that is why so many book-lovers enjoy meeting up to discuss them, however the very fact of it being a ‘selfish’ thing to do doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have great benefits in making a person less selfish. In fact as the book progresses, we see a transformation in the Queen. For one who has travelled to nearly every country for duty, reading allows her to discover new worlds and find out about people in a way she has previously been unable. It has almost a humanising effect on her as she starts to notice others and their feelings:

“A few years ago she would never have noticed what Norman was doing or anybody else either, and if she took note of it now it was because she knew more of people’s feelings than she used to and could put herself in someone else’s place.”

Another key theme of the book is that of the reader always trying to catch up. The Queen comes to realise that she is an “Opsimath: one who learns only late in life”. She becomes increasingly regretful, becoming aware that she has had countless missed opportunities to meet famous authors.

“Years ago she had sat next to Lord David Cecil at a dinner in Oxford and had been at a loss for conversation. He, she found had written books on Jane Austen and these days she would have relished the encounter. But Lord David was dead and so it was too late. Too late. It was all too late. But she went on, determined as ever and always trying to catch up.”

However, when Norman encourages her to meet a group of authors she finds the situation awkward and concludes that authors are perhaps best met “within the pages of their novels”. Although I’m a young(ish) reader, I think that I and many other people often do feel that sense of not being able to catch up. There are always new books that I want to read and classic books I want to discover.

Perhaps the most poignant point in the novel is that which Bennett makes about how the Queen is viewed by others as a result of her reading. The people that surround her either find it an annoyance, or are outwardly hostile to her desire to read. It as if reading has made her more of a person, and more thoughtful so that she no longer fits into the simple definition of what Her Majesty should stand for.

“The footman said: ‘Yes, ma’am.’

It was as if he was talking to his grandmother, and not for the first time the Queen was made unpleasntly aware of the hostility her reading seemed to arouse.”

Even more outrageous is the ‘ageist’ attitude of the people around her, as they assume that her new passion is a symptom of battiness!

“Though the Queen was always discreet about writing in her notebooks her equerry was not reassured. He had once or twice caught her at it and thought that this, too, pointed to potential derangement. What had Her Majesty to note down? She never used to do it and like any change of behaviour in the elderly it was readily put down to decay.

‘Probably Alzheimer’s’, said another of the young men.”

Personally I think this is such a keen observation on the way that older people can be compartmentalised in just a few words. And an interesting thought perhaps that reading is so liberating and something that in most cases, except where poor sight is concerned (and then we have audio books) that can be enjoyed with equal passion by people of any age.

I absolutely loved this book and I’ve used lots of quotations to illustrate that, but I hope that give a sense of the beauty of Bennett’s writing. Insightful and witty, The Uncommon Reader makes many serious points but above that is just a brilliant little story. It made me happy, and it made me think all with just a few pages of brilliant prose.

Finally, can’t we all identify with this?

“‘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?’

And all, though she did not say this, in paperback and so handbag size.”

I thoroughly recommend The Uncommon Reader and at 121 pages, personally I believe you’d be foolish not to read it!

21 responses to “Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader: Charming, Witty, Wise

  1. Loved this book! So funny and clever, but too short! I have recommended this book to several friends – I find it to be a must read.

    • 🙂 I know what you mean, sometimes when a book is brief you wish that it was longer. I’m actually reading Child 44 a bit slowly right now because I don’t want it to end!!

  2. This is indeed a little gem! Glad you were charmed. I loved its keen observations on the nature of reading as well as the wonderful wit, especially the Corgis who were not amused by one’s new pastime.

    • I could just imagine her and the annoying Corgis you know! It’s definitely a great one for book lovers, I think it’s enjoyable anyway, but for people who love to read you have total empathy with her…

  3. I always thought it was a little pompous so have avoided it but I’ll definitely look out for it next time! Great review.

    • You know what, I’m not surprised that you thought that. I tried to persuade my bf to read it but he wasn’t keen on the plot at all, but I think it’s worth a try especially as you’re book lover.

  4. I was having a really bad day and I walked into a bookstore (you’ll see me starting a sentence like this quite oft’), and I picked this book up. I went to Starbucks, and got myself a slice of cheesecake and a hot chocolate, curled up on the sofa there, and finished the book in one go, completely engrossed in this charming “short” story.

    I walked out of Starbucks significantly happier, and figured all my troubles are far away.

    Any book that has that effect is a great book!

    • Such a good combination. Alan Bennett and Cheesecake and a comfy chair in Starbucs. Oh that sounds rude now, but you know what I mean!

  5. That sounds like the type of day that I badly want and need! I love books, I love Starbucks, I love cheesecake.

  6. Oh am so so so pleased that you liked it! It has to be one of my secret little fav’s – in fact not sure why havent put this in my top 40 books, I think I need to change that.

    I have only read this one of his many books but do feel I should read more.

    • I’ve read some of his short stories and loved them. I’m going to look out for more Bennett in second handshops I think!

  7. This is one of my all time favorite books. I read it in one sitting. It was an absolute delight from cover to cover. And not just because it is about reading and Bennett is such a great writer, but also because I love stories of self-discovery and transformation. And I think Her Majesty’s transformation is lovely and life affirming.

    I have a fantasy that Helen Mirren will reprise her fabulous portrayal as QE II in a film version of this wonderful book.

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  9. A lovely review and one that has convinced me to give this book a go. I’m attracted to smaller books just now and have been considering this one for a while. I’ll pop back and let you know what I thought!

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  11. I could have quoted the entire book. It’s such a delightful read and, as you pointed out, covers a wide range of topic and issues to consider.

    As sad as it was about the Alzheimer’s dig, I did have a good laugh. 🙂

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