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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