The Uncommon Reader, book review

A Royal Journey Through a Passion for Books, Literature and Reading

The Uncommon Reader is a gentle, wry, story in the established Bennett mould with an underlying comment on literacy and the British attitude to intellectual pursuits.

The Queen's corgis are distracted by something in the courtyard of Windsor Castle and lead Her Majesty to a mobile library at a rear entrance to the castle.

The Queen and the Mobile Library

With the corgis having led Her Majesty into the van she feels duty bound to borrow a book. It is here that she meets Norman, a gawky youth who works in the kitchen with a passion for literature.

As the story progresses it is Norman who becomes the Queens “amanuensis” and both guides her choice of reading and acts as her emissary, changing her books at the British Library.

Obsession and Duty

As the Queen gets drawn deeper into literature and reading she starts to resent the blandness of her official duties. She realises that she has missed out on much and that, despite her travels, literature is opening up a world far richer than that she has experienced..

The reader should be aware that the Queen is renowned for her sense of duty. In 1947 at the age of twenty-one she made a speech where she said “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong...”. She has carried it through and reiterated that sentiment ever since.

However in The Uncommon Reader her obsession with reading and literature takes her over and she starts to let some of the little things slide; she is sometimes even late for appointments. This causes consternation amongst her advisers and other staff for whom it creates uncertainty and difficulties in carrying out their duties.

Personal Growth and Lack of Understanding

Her Majesty’s Private Secretary and equerries are discomfited by the Queens interest in books and the new attitude it is generating. She no longer follows their briefing and the resulting confusion causes them difficulties.

The staff does not understand the passion for literature and does not appreciate the new world it is opening to Her Majesty. They resent Norman, now promoted from the kitchen, and his closeness to the Queen and his influence on her. They manage to get him out of the way but that is not the end of the story.

As well as the palace staff the Prime Minister is also disturbed by the change in the Queen as a result of her new passion for books as it makes her less willing to tolerate his perorations. Like many other high-ranking officials he is disturbed by being shown up as a philistine and upsets his sense of self-importance.

Conclusion

The Uncommon Reader is a very small and inviting book and having around only twenty-five thousand words it should be regarded as a novella. It makes a pleasant diversion and for the accomplished reader will occupy just an hour or two. It is classic Alan Bennett even though it is set in a rather different milieu to his usual works it still demonstrates the author’s enjoyment of the little details of life.

On one level it is just a pleasant, gently humorous, piece of fiction that will offend no one.

On the other hand there is a sharp witted exploration of what literature can do and mean to someone. It show how intellectual pursuits tend to be regarded with suspicion by the majority in Britain. It is a story of personal growth for two very different people linked by a shared enthusiasm – both of whom come out of it better than the people around them who have tried to discourage them from their serious enjoyment of books and literature.

Oh, and there is also a neat little twist in the end.

The Uncommon Reader (ISBN: 978-1-84668-049-6) by Alan Bennett was published in hardback by Profile Books at £10.99 in 2007.

 

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