The Uncommon Reader is none other than Her Majesty the Queen who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people.
Queen Elizabeth’s rambunctious Corgi dogs veer off their normal path around Buckingham Palace and end up barking rowdily around the mobile library, parked in an area the queen never frequents. Stepping into the van, she expresses her surprise to the driver and the only customer, a boy who works in the kitchen. She feels obligated to take out a book, any book, even though she isn’t really a reader:
“She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.” (Page 6-7)
Once the book is in her possession, she is virtually off to the races. The boy from the kitchen, Norman, turns out to be very well-read, and guides her as she reads a wide variety of literature from the classics to England’s most popular authors. She becomes a passionate reader and, much like the fervent readers I know, reading takes over her life. This does not set well with those around her as the eighty-year-old queen allows reading to take on greater importance than the jobs that had always been her duty and, therefore, carried out with precision.
Bennett delightfully describes this struggle and the ensuing conclusion provides just the right exclamation mark at the end of the story. Thoughtful, humorous, touching, Bennett points out all the joy of being a passionate reader by throwing out one gorgeously crafted sentence after another. Highly recommended.
The happens to follow her ever present clutch of Corgis into a mobile library that happens to visit the palace grounds. Good form compels her to check out a book. She also comes into contact with a gay kitchen boy who becomes her early guide into all varieties of literature. Subsequently the Queen discovers that, of course, the palace has its own library. Bennett's comedic narrative of the development of this new found passion for reading (despite the disapproval of the Prince, courtiers, and the Prime Minister), and the empowerment and confidence it brings to the Queen personally, to her judgment, and to her "duty" is the central theme of the book.
Bennett's ultimately goal, and far more serious one of course, is to show how literature humanizes the reader (as the Queen says in the book, "one must take the time"), as well as the subversive nature of independent thought, and (certainly self-servingly) leads to writing as the ultimate exercise of the mind.
This is a marvelous fictionalized tale of Queen Elizabeth II who developed a love of reading that was life changing.
It is a gem of a book and resonates with those who enjoy and are obsessed by reading.
Just as Queen Elizabeth discovered, reading opens our eyes, heightens our perceptions and helps us to define and understand who we are.
Page 105 of the book contains a the statement from the Queen that reading "tenderizes us."
Bennett's writing style is pithy, humorous and utterly delightful.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is the witty, funny, and charming story of the Queen becoming infatuated with books as she approaches her 80th birthday, and the wrench that throws into the works for all her non-reading attendants and handlers, not to mention the Prime Minister and other governmental luminaries. (Is that last one an oxymoron?) Norman, who she meets by chance in a traveling library, soon becomes a critical reading assistant. He eases her into this new world with books like My Dog Tulip, taking advantage of her love for dogs, but soon she is taking on more challenging writers and giving us hilarious critical commentary. "Am I alone . . . in wanting to give Henry James a good talking to?"
At first she tries to fit reading within the principle of "duty" that has guided her life, deciding that she reads "because one has a duty to find out what people are like". But soon enough she is freely declaiming that "One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty." As she begins to ask members of the public and politicos about what they are reading, and making reading suggestions, Sir Kevin, her schedule manager, becomes more and more alarmed. This is not the way it is done. When she begins to give books to the Prime Minister and quiz him about them, the unacceptable disturbance of routine reaches the highest levels, provoking a graphic laugh out loud response. In the end her new reading habit takes her in a direction that no one expected, one which she explains in memorable Queenly style.
The Reader of the title is none other than Her Majesty the Queen who, while walking the infamous corgis in the Palace grounds one afternoon, is mortified when they overrun a visiting library van, providing services to those 'Down Below' in the Palace. Sensitive like no other to the subtleties of British propriety, the Queen borrows a book by way of an apology, and - despite it not being THAT good - finishes it because, that is simply what One Does, One's Duty. Sense of obligation leads onto a second book ... and by now Her Maj is hooked. Having read plenty for Duty, but little for pleasure, she suddenly finds herself catapulted into a fictional world, and finds herself seeing the world around her, and herself, differently for it. As her staff start to worry that Reading is simply not a Done Thing for the Monarch to be doing, and amid concern that the changes in her behaviour represent the onset of senile dementia (far from it), a slowly escalating battle of wits occurs (leading to amongst other things, the despatch of a newfound confidante of Her Majesty's to the University of East Anglia, and the blowing up of Anita Brookner during the State Opening of Parliament)
Bennett's book is many things; a delightfully observed character study of a woman whose public face is known like few other, but whose private self remains a blank slate onto which he can plausibly project; a sharp satire on Britain and British society, and most of all, a glorious hymn to the joy of reading and all that it brings and a stinging rebuke to those who carp boorishly at the arts as elitist. Bennett has a style and capacity with language like few other, and this is very much a Bennett writing at the full height of what he's capable of. The delightful sting in this tale's tail caps off the whole thing beautifully.
An absolute gem of a book, and one I can see me giving as a gift many times over in the next few months, and I commend it to you all.
I would love to know what the real Queen thought of it...
While one would assume the Queen has everything she could possibly want, it is not until she begins reading for pleasure that we (and she) begin to see the narrowness of her world, despite all her unique experience. Bennett’s Queen is a sympathetic figure, and his telling of her story is both gentle and very humorous. He accomplishes a difficult task: enabling the (common) reader to identify with the Queen of England. And that feat points to what seems to be his central point: the experience of reading – no matter who you are or what your circumstances – is by its nature universal and democratic.
I loved this novella – especially the end (no spoilers here!). I intend to pick up a physical copy of the book to add to my personal library.
Alan Bennett's wonderful novella imagines what would happen if the Queen suddenly became an avid reader. When her much-loved corgis get loose and charge into a mobile library, Queen Elizabeth II charges in after them, and then feels an obligation to check out a book. And thus begins her obsession with reading; her discovery of great literature. Reading very quickly takes precedence over a multitude of royal obligations, sometimes causing her to be late, or creating conversational cul-de-sacs with staff and subjects alike:
Still, though reading absorbed her, what the Queen had not expected was the degree to which it drained her of enthusiasm for anything else. It's true that the at prospect of opening yet another swimming-baths her heart didn't exactly leap up, but even so, she had not exactly resented having to do it. ... Now she surveyed the unrelenting progression of tours, travels, and undertakings stretching years into the future only with dread. (p. 60)
Well, what avid reader hasn't felt the same way from time to time? Bennett keeps tongue firmly in cheek throughout this short book, satirizing the royals and English society. Yet he also paints an engaging portrait of the "real life" led by a public figure. The Uncommon Reader was a wonderful diversion that could be read again and again with enjoyment.
There are many reviews of this effervescent entertainment, so I will confine myself to noting that the book carries with it a none-too-subtle punch line which I can't imagine would have made Mr. Bennett more likely to be in line for a life peerage, but which I can imagine made him a popular figure around Highgrove.
A delightful bagatelle of a book. Recommended to anyone not connected with the Royal Family.
Leaving aside any logic with the conjecture, the story is a short, sharp and immeasurably droll conception of ‘what-if’ Her Majesty became an avid reader later in her life (assuming she wasn’t in her younger days). And the effects reading would have on a monarch’s awareness, after actually meeting many authors in her life; and on her royal duties and her household-at-large. In particular when, for the first time in her reign, she gives greater priority to books, than to her subjects, and in wishing to share her newly-found passion, by-passes standard, conservative protocols.
Unquestionably Alan Bennett, with an astonishing economy of words, delivers an astute, intelligent and oft-times amusing stance within this book; on readers in general, and on one in particular, and on the royal institution as a whole. The razor-sharp intuitiveness is astounding, the title itself a delight with its by-play on words; but I can’t help thinking: did we need the meaning of ‘big’ words clarified in the text most times – though perhaps it was intended to, once again, accentuate the difference persistently encouraged between royalty and the common man? And there is a degree of poignancy, of sorrow, to the ruminations of the Queen a propos her reading experiences, most of which, the bibliophiles amongst us, can strongly empathise with!
Along with the adroit commentary on reading: “You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there” (p. 102), there is also a scrutiny, and incisive insight, into writing itself, skilfully expressed within this narrative: “After all’, as she wrote in her notebook, ‘novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies.” (p. 74)
In the end, the unexpected twist – to me at least – has left me in somewhat two minds: uncommonly irritated at the affairs-of-state, and unsurprised at the common state-of-affairs; for one uncommon reader! Perhaps the outcome the author intended all along… if one is allowed to elucidate.
(May 31, 2009)
The Queen is portrayed in a "homey" sort of light -- we get to know her as a real person who READS, although Americans have been given the impression that the British Royals are a bunch of inbred, not-terribly-bright, upper-class twits. The Elizabeth II of this story is nothing like that; but the best part about her is that she is no snob, either. She befriends the man who runs the bookmobile and gets to know a bit about "life on the outside."
The ending came as a COMPLETE shock to me [I won't ruin it] and I found myself shouting "NO! ALAN, NO!" as if the author could hear me -- and as if that ending were likely anyway. But what a burst of adrenaline!
It began with a single book borrowed out of politeness. Her Majesty the Queen had wandered into a traveling library to apologize for the racket her corgis were making. Much to the chagrin and frustration of her advisors and family members, the first book is followed by another and then another until the Queen is consumed by the need to read. This newly formed habit is met with differing levels of non-support, but as the Queen she has the freedom to ignore this to some extent despite the multiple attempts made to reign in her addiction. While her reading becomes somewhat problematic for her responsibilities regarding matters of state, the Queen discovers that her mind has become more open and her sensitivity towards others has increased.
The plot of the book is really more of an excuse to expound and ruminate on readers and the act of reading than it is to tell a story. Regardless, the Queen's tale is delightful and Bennett even manages to work in a few amusingly clever twists by the end of the slim volume. The pacing was a bit uneven, moving along in fits and starts, but the book is short enough that this isn't terribly troublesome. Quite a few literary references are dropped throughout, and even though I didn't recognize them all I appreciated the ones that I did (there's even a dig at Harry Potter, which amused me greatly).
Overall, I found that I enjoyed The Uncommon Reader very much, although I was left with a feeling of wanting something more after I finished it. Generally delightful, the novella seemed empty at times and occasionally a little full of its own cleverness. As a novella, the book is easily and probably best read in one sitting. The story will be most appreciated by those who are themselves already avid readers and who understand the addictive and often subversive power of books and reading.
Experiments in Reading
Here is a quote from this book, when the Queen discusses the difference between being briefed about a book and actually reading it:
“…..briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up”.
I’d say “The Uncommon Reader” is a quirky novella that –while I enjoyed it very much– may not be for everyone. Not everyone has the same taste in humor, for example. Also, while it didn’t bother me, there are frequent references to homosexuality (such as which books the Queen is reading are by authors that are/were homosexual). However, since it is a novella, it doesn’t take too much of your time whether you like this novella or not.
This short 120-page book covers a lot of ground. Classism, the role of the monarchy, politics, and literature all become targets in Bennett's satire. The prose is beautifully written and the comedic bits strike just the right balance with the weightier parts of the book.
And don't skip to the last page! Bennett manages to end his story on the perfect note.
This latest novella has won me over completely, though. Quite often one encounters a scenario that offers a very funny idea that the writer fails to sustain, but Bennett delivers beautifully, humorously and poignantly.
It opens with a mobile library van being parked near the remoter hinterlands of the Buckingham Palace estate. The Queen, 'The Uncommon Reader' of the title, stumbles across it, having followed one of her errant corgis. Wandering in she meets the librarian and Norman, one of her own servants, who visits it every week. Finding herself in the mobile library, the Queen decides to take a book just to be polite. Because it is close to hand the librarian give her a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett, and the Queen takes it away. She isn't particularly impressed but brings it back the following week and takes away another book. This is more engaging and the Queen comes to realise how enjoyable it is to read. She quickly becomes addicted to reading and is soon hiding books in her handbag or the royal carriage s that she can optimise her reading time.
The story is very amusing but it also conveys the value of reading thoughtfully, and the huge sense of satisfaction that comes from completing an engaging book.
No, that is a falsehood. Although a light one. I did in fact put it down ONCE in order to grab some notepaper and a pen round about page 19, when I realized that the literary references in this book would be so plentiful I would never manage to remember them all without writing them down for further reference. Imagine my surprise when I found myself reflected in that activity by The Queen Herself doing that exact same thing on page 47!
"...she had started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarising what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her."
Yes, the fact that this book has me comparing my reading habits with The Queen of England herself is no small feat indeed. I must admit that I found myself rather liking the plucky heroine of this delightful romp on words. The more she read, the more humane she became. She was transformed before mine eyes from an uptight matriarchal spinster who remarked of herself, "I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me" (72); to a sympathetic, remarkable, and extremely endearing literate Lady.
Perhaps in the end what makes this namesake of the title "Uncommon", is the fact she does not have her equal in this living world outside of the pages. If only our political rulers would take heed of such wonder and delight of the world of books and become "tenderise(d) by books" as The Queen Herself was!
Bravo, Mr. Bennett!
When the Queen's dogs accidentally wander by way of a mobile library near Buckingham Palace, she feels obligated to check out a book. From there, she is enthralled by books and soon begins to become obsessed with reading, feeling that she has discovered something important to her that she has missed out on over the years. We get to see her journey as she grows as a reader to a most surprising conclusion to the story.
This is the second time that I've read this story, and I loved it just as much as I did the first. Bennett has constructed a great little story, and the ending is perfect. I love his portrayal of the Queen, and both how she deals with her subjects and how she is handled by those around her in her household and government positions. If you've never read this before, I'd highly recommend it. It is a very quick read and worth it. You won't be disappointed.
I really enjoyed reading The Uncommon Reader (Ha! that sounds funny!) The characters were unique and quirky - from the Queen herself, a self described opsimath; to her politically correct aide, New Zealander Sir Kevin, forever concerned with the negative impact that the Queen's increased literacy might have on the Monarchy; to the kitchen boy turned literary advisor, the Queen's amanuensis, Norman - they are all multi-dimensional, realistic, well-written characters.
At just 120 pages, The Uncommon Reader is a quick and amusing read - easily tackled in one sitting. It is incredibly humorous in its complete absurdity, and leaves the reader alternately shaking one's head and laughing out loud. This is a book for the reader in us all. It was a joy to read, from it's hilarious beginning to it's surprising ending. You will not be disappointed!
When she begins to read in earnest, many are alarmed including her some of her family, most of her staff and the prime minister. They all in one way or another try to quench this desire by all means necessary including sabotage, persuasion and coercion. But all their attempts fail and in fact one incidence of persuasion leads to a very surprising end to the book. Her personal secretary goes as far as saying that reading on the scale that she had embarked on it was not desirable as it was too solitary a task and one that may be seen as exclusionary.
I really enjoyed this book and thought it was extremely entertaining. It was very funny and also made me feel sorry for the Queen because in many ways her life though certainly one of privilege must also be very lonely in its own way.
As a reader, one is always aware of the conceit of a writer (Bennet) talking about reading and writer, but he is not as "meta" about it as a Calvino or Eco. At the same time, he doesn't go to as interesting places with it, eiter. The book is very good throughout, but never quite achieves being great.
Not to say that there aren't problems. The plot is, frankly, absurd, and the characters behave in such a one-dimensional way as to make them lose any believability. The ending will vex and disappoint many, though I found it rather refreshing. Let me make clear that my criticisms are minor squabbles; "The Uncommon Reader" is, by and large, a fun, light-hearted little story.
Without reservation I would recommend this book to most everyone. It has a way of transcending interests and tastes and having a broad appeal which guarantees that nearly everyone who comes across it will be charmed and entertained.