The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett surprised me. At 120 pages, it’s a novella, a bookish snack with an English twist. Does that make it a scone, a biscuit, or a crimpet? In any case, it was a tasty little morsel of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed (try it with tea!) If I’d read this a couple of years ago, I don’t think I would have had the same appreciation for it. I wasn’t the same kind of reader then and wouldn’t have been ready for it. I was still munching on more common, undignified fare.
The book is about how the Queen of England becomes a reader, accidentally. On a romp with her dogs she stumbles upon a mobile library that makes weekly visits to Buckingham Palace. She asks the startled librarian, “Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticket?” and is told she may borrow up to six books. “Six? Heavens!” she replies, and borrows one out of sheer politeness. Inside the library she also meets a palace employee from the kitchen, the young Norman.
One book leads to another, and another, and some more, and reading soon becomes a royal obsession. The Queen brings Norman up from the kitchen to be her reading accomplice, suggesting books for her and going to great lengths to get them. Everything changes for The Queen through her reading. She feels as if she has wasted so much time, time that could have been spent with books. She regretfully remembers meeting great authors at various functions but, having never read their work, realizes these were missed opportunities.
The Queen’s newfound passion for the written word causes quite a stir and makes others uncomfortable. Her people are up in arms because she’d rather read than carry out her duties. When meeting her subjects out in public she no longer asks them the usual questions, such as where they are from, or if they have come from a great distance to be there; instead she asks what they are reading, and some people are embarrassed when they admit they aren’t reading anything. When she does encounter a fellow reader, the conversation is lengthy, causing long lines. Soon people are giving her books out in public, and her ladies in waiting have to bring totes to carry these gifts. It’s all becoming a bit tiresome for her attendants.
Her private secretary, Sir Kevin, is especially upset. “It’s important,” said Sir Kevin, “that Your Majesty should stay focused.”, however he concedes that he can understand Her Majesty’s need to pass the time. The Queen replies, “Pass the time? Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.” At least her family is happy, because she is distracted and not so nit-picky and focused on them.
Sir Kevin and the Prime Minister’s secretary conspire to end the Queen’s bothersome pastime that is making others so uncomfortable. Norman is sent away under mysterious circumstances, and the books she packs for travel never arrive at their destination. And yet, the Queen and her books continue to be a royal pain.
Along with reading, the Queen begins having new ideas and feelings. She starts to keep a notebook handy to copy down interesting passages, and soon starts writing down opinions and critiques of her own. After a time she discovers reading isn’t enough.
“And it came to her again that she did not want simply to be a reader. A reader was next door to being a spectator, whereas when she was writing she was doing, and doing was her duty.”
With writing, a new obsession is born..
I loved this tiny book and would highly recommend it to anyone who is passionate for the written word. You will recognize yourself in Her Majesty and are sure to have a good laugh!