The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett’s delightful novel The Uncommon Reader is a paean to the art and joy of reading, an ode to the worlds that can be explored and the breadth and depth of understandings that can be achieved by immersing oneself in good books. Built upon the premise that the Queen—never once named as such, but no doubt Elizabeth II—did not previously read much, either for lack of time or inclination or exposure to books, despite owning vast libraries, until she happened to discover the Westminster traveling library’s weekly visits to her palace, this short novel takes the reader along on the Queen’s journey of discovering how pleasurable and fulfilling and ultimately obsessive the act of reading seriously can be.
Witty, charming and wry, Bennett captures—in manner and speech—the flavor of royal intercourse, that is, the indirect and sometimes euphemistic yet always respectful though sometimes snide means of addressing one another within the palace. Whether or not the Queen actually speaks to everyone but her husband by frequently employing the indefinite and gender neutral pronoun ‘one’ instead of ‘I”—as in “One is saving that for a rainy day,” meaning the Harry Potter books—Bennett’s portrait of the Queen’s character and circumstances is absolutely convincing.
His treatment of the Queen’s growing passion for books and the consequent dismay of some of her less literary attendants, including the Prime Minister and other members of his cabinet, who feel threatened and disconcerted by the Queen’s reading provides the plot for the narrative, and sets the reader up for a twist that is delivered with the last words of the book.
The Uncommon Reader is a convincing documentary of the stages of self-education and ‘enlightenment’ that readers naturally progress through as their love for books grows, in some cases transforming itself into a keen desire to imitate:
In the weeks that followed it was noticeable that the Queen was reading less, if at all…
She found, though, that when she had written something down, even it was just an entry in her notebook, she was happy as once she would have been happy after doing some reading. 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.