The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
2007 Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Finished on February 19, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
From one of England's most celebrated writers, the author of the award-winning The History Boys, a funny and superbly observed novella about the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading.
When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff, and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.
Oh, this is one every book-lover and Anglophile should own! It's a quick read and quite witty. Having recently watched The Crown, I could hear the Queen's distinctive voice as I read. Here are a few favorite passages:
"Pass the time?" said the Queen. "Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand."and
The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually, she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing quite what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless, to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer. All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.and
It was this sense of making up for lost time that made her read with such rapidity and in the process now making more frequent (and more confident) comments of her own, bringing to what was in effect literary criticism the same forthrightness with which she tackled other departments of her life. She was not a gentle reader and often wished authors were around so that she could take them to task.
"Am I alone," she wrote, "in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?"
"I can see why Dr. Johnson is well thought of, but surely, much of it is opinionated rubbish?"
It was Henry James she was reading one teatime when she said out loud, "Oh, do get on."I'm going to treat myself to a copy for Christmas. This is one to be read more than once!