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The author of the Tony Award winner The History Boys, Bennett is one of the most prolific writers of England. With his novella The Uncommon Reader, he writes about how the Queen, the protagonist of the story, develops an obsession with reading when one Wednesday her playful dogs (corgis) lead her to a traveling library driven by Mr. Hutchings. Inside she meets Norman, a young palace kitchen staff who loves reading, and promotes him as her amanuensis to help her with her reading list. After being engrossed by the novels of Nancy Mitford, Her Majesty subsequently finds herself feverishly reading works by a wide array authors from Jean Genet to Marcel Proust. Consequently, the Queen begins to acquire a new perspective on everything, much to the consternation of her equerries and private Secretary, Sir Kevin. The Queen, after showing signs of no stopping with her uncharacteristic and sudden growing passion for books and for writing down notes, has had her advisers terrified lest she might be suffering from Alzheimer’s.
In my life there are two things that give me, of equal measure, the greatest pleasure: reading and writing. And nothing gives me even greater pleasure than reading about books that talk about the love of books, and then being able writing about it. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (First American Edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) is one such book–a book that celebrates books, writing, readers, and writers. In this book, Bennett’s protagonist, the Queen of England, becomes a passionate reader–a woman whose unique position in life does not afford her to have interests, but only to take an interest in things.
In the book, Bennett (the fictitious omniscient narrator of the book) explains that in royal circles reading is frowned upon because reading is seen as privately selfish, indulgent, and requires exclusive attention; that when one is royal, one has a duty to be selfless, patriotic, and accessible; and that there is no room for books, and most certainly, no room for a room–the library, study, or one’s own nook–where one can curl up and read.
One could detect a play on words in the novella’s title immediately. The Queen, if one is familiar with the British aristocracy, is not a commoner. After all, she is THE Queen–it couldn’t get more uncommon than that. The irony, however, lies in the fact that despite being a patroness of the Library of London and having hundreds of thousands of books in her own palaces and castles, the Queen’s obsession with reading began with a mobile library.
The book may be short, but the good thing about it is that it has a long list of references to extraordinary authors. For someone who hates being left out or being ignorant about books and authors that one ought to know, this book really makes you want to read about these other authors, too. The protagonist asks and talks about authors and writers such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, even Harry Potter (which she doesn’t like, of coure).
In The Uncommon Reader, Bennett amplifies and solidifies my sentiments–that reading is shared, anonymous, and common yet private, elitist, and exclusive at the same time. In essence, what the book is trying to say is that reading, no matter how high or low one’s station in life is, is one activity everybody could share and enjoy. Bennett proves in this book that the Queen of England is also just like the rest of the world.
He paints the most eminent individual in all of England as a person who makes mistakes and feels jealous of movie stars like Lauren Bacall whom she thinks have lead a more colorful life than hers; as a person who thinks back on the past and sighs for not having met some people, especially authors, when she could have; as a person who is fallible, capable of envy, plagued with insecurities and regrets. too. He shows how the Queen, despite her old age, is not impervious to criticism from her own staff, and has also yet so much to learn about others through the life and experiences of the characters and the people in the books she reads. For someone who has lived a life on the grandest scale possible, Bennett effortlessly shows the unseen maternal and human side of his protagonist, the aging monarch–mostly ignorant of a life outside her own and entertaining thoughts of a life of ordinariness, anonymity.
A life outside the clutches of duty, responsibility, and royalty.
There is nothing common about The Uncommon Reader. For a royalist, a monarchist, a bibliophile, a writer, and an obsessive reader like myself, this book truly exceeds my expectations. Bennett’s characters couldn’t get any more human than in this book. My delusion of grandeur about being a British lord is now satisfied. Commoner though I am (well, everyone who doesn’t have a noble title is common), at least now, I can say that I have many things in common with the Queen of England, the grandmama I never had, however fictitious my source of pride is.
Filled with charming, believable, and eccentric characters, and with a wonderful twist at the end, The Uncommon Reader is nothing short of beautiful. Whether you are common or uncommon, this book will surely delight you. Bennett’s a writer whose prose style is tantalizingly perfect. He is a consummate master of letters, and his deadpan, sly, and self-deprecating sense of humor translates gloriously on every page. They say reading is bliss. This book is just that–a truly blissful read.
5 of 5 stars
1. What do blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe and novelist Virginia Woolf have in common? What about pop star Britney Spears and poet Sylvia Plath? Manic-depression, otherwise known as bipolar disorder, is a mood disorder punctuated by heavenly highs and hellish lows. It is both a gift and a curse. I am both blessed and afflicted with the condition and the illness. Hollywood A-Listers Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ben Stiller, former heads of state Prime Minster Winston Churchill, and even President Bill Clinton, have been reported to have it, too. What is it about bipolar disorder and greatness? The population of writers, artists, poets, political and business leaders have been said to be more than likely to be manic-depressive? Does this explain why I almost always feel great (except when I’m having a depressive episode)? Will I be great, too, or is that just one of my delusions of grandeur? I actually love being bipolar. Okay, I hate it sometimes. But I have to admit, the good things about being bipolar outweigh the bad.
2. Despite a plenitude of literature supporting the correlation between creativity and bipolar disorder, it still remains a main theme in many a scientific and literary writings. It puzzles and befuddles me, albeit being manic-depressive myself, how a person of extraordinary talent like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath could take their own lives. Were they born at a wrong time? Could they have been saved from themselves had the proper medications been available during their time or would they have refused them? Britney Spears is lucky she was born during these times. She would have eaten her children alive has she lived during the times of Plath and Woolf. She would have given them a run for their money and drive them crazy, er, crazy-er.
3. Novelists, short story writers, poets, essayists, memoirists, scriptwriters, biographers, and playwrights — these creative writers — have to be creative, and have to go beyond the realm of “normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature (Wikipedia’s definition of creative writing)” — and to go beyond the bounds of logical and scientific thinking. Journalists’, academicians’, scientists’, and even bloggers’, writings are based on hard facts and supporting evidences, logic, numbers, formulas, and equations. Creative writers, on the other, have to make use of imagination, feelings, experiences, and memories, and make use of literary acrobatics in order to produce a work of art, a literary masterpiece produced from their fertile minds. They don’t rely or base their writings on universal truths, postulates, theories, or hypotheses. I am more of the creative sort. I think the creative sort is superior to the scientific and logical-thinking writers. Don’t bite my head off, science writers and journalists. Jeez. It’s not my fault you weren’t born with the superior creative mind of the certifiable.
4. There are times when in one of my manic episodes, times when my entire being is wrapped up in a glorious wave of euphoria, I feel indestructibly superhuman. I can do anything and everything without going to sleep for days, my thoughts racing with a plethora of ideas that seem to spring out of nowhere like the brainchild of Zeus or one of the Greek gods. My thoughts crystallized, senses heightened, energy bottomlessed. See, I just made up a word. How creative can that get?
5. And at the other end of the mood spectrum, during my depressive episodes — times when I get deluged by an inexplicable surge of hopelessness, I become a shadow of my former indestructibly superhuman hyperself. I can’t do anything but get fraught with anxiety, riddled with guilt, and unable to concentrate. My mind and body horizontally languishing away in bed the whole day. What was once pleasurable would seem an automated routine of tedious tasks. What was once done out of passion and love would seem an exasperating and fruitless exercise. Labor of love turns into labor of hate. Passion turns into a stone of indifference. Life becomes the Angel of Death. I know, right?
6. So, what exactly is it about bipolar disorder that seems to almost always tend to produce creativity? Or is it the other way around? Is creativity the one that triggers a dormant bipolar disorder? Well, I really don’t know the whole truth. All I know is I wouldn’t love thinking, reading, and writing a much as I do now if I was just a normal, sane person. What pushes me to write, to be a prolific and accomplished writer, I believe, is this tinge of madness — this chemically imbalanced pendulum of manic-depression. To be a creative writer, one has to have at least a substantial amount of life experiences because different life experiences produce different kinds of emotions, memories, and insight necessary to bring to life convincing and relatable characters, and to tell a story as conceivably and believably life-like as possible. And empathy, the ability to not only feel what the other person is feeling, but to actually be the other person, I believe, is the most natural trait of a manic-depressive. You know why I know? Because I can feel it.
7. The interior world of a bipolar person is a hodgepodge of emotions, a veritable niagara of thoughts and feelings supplied by an overactive imagination and obsessive-compulsive behavior, exacerbated by real-life traumas, hopes, fantasies, and experiences. In short, we are self-absorbed, we love to live inside our heads, talk to ourselves, try out different personalities, and pretend to God, an English lord, a mad scientist, a celebrated author, or one of our characters in our book because there is so much going on in our head it’s practically a world within a world within a world. A universe of worlds! Oh, I’m telling you, it’s an asylum of characters and plots inside my genius skull. If you had half my brain, you would realize that. But I guess only a few people are as gifted as me — or cursed — depending on how you look at it. Alright, let’s just go with gifted, then.
8. Oh, I could go on and on and on and on. The question is, can you handle it? Hmmm. I thought so. But hey, if Britney Spears is up for a lovely chat, I’d be more than willing to discuss with her our future accommodations at the Betty Ford Clinic. Britney, if you’re reading this, call me? Oh, I forget. You don’t read. Okay, to the agent or publicist of Britney, you know what to do.
9. Just like the Author Profile and Book Review series in this blog, this Racing Thoughts Of A Creative Writer No. 1 post is the first in a series of my opinions, thoughts, and views about books, writing, politics, business, bipolar disorder, films, and entertainment. This will be a collection of my reflections, essays, and creative musings. This is a literary blog but it doesn’t have to be all that literary. I like to mix it up with things that are relevant to the times like “Is Obama Really A Muslim? If So, Does That Mean There Could Be A Fourth Lady?,” or “Is Piolo Pascual Really Gay? Because If He Is, What’s His Number?,” or “Is Hilary Clinton A Lesbian? If Yes, Did She Also Have An Affair With Monica Lewinsky?,” or “Why Are Catholics Born With Original Sin? Isn’t That Just A Bit Tad Unfair?” I have a lot of questions about everything and opinions on practically anything. So, if you’re reading this and following this blog, you are one lucky son of a fan, because you will be entitled to my opinion.
10. If you want to know my answers to the questions I asked on no. 9, how the hell should I know? I ask the questions around here, you give the answers. Capisce?
So, here’s the thing,
I am bipolar, so is Britney.
And if you follow this blog,
we’ll drive you crazy.
Hey, I just wrote a poem. Well, what do you know? I’m a poet, too! Take that, Sylvia Plath!
Books About Bipolar Disorder: