I 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!