The Uncommon Reader

uncommon readerOne day, the Queen of England is taking her corgis for their usual afternoon walk at the Palace, and they rush past her toward a small trailer just outside the gate, yapping and barking. When she goes in to retrieve them, she discovers that she’s entered the City of Westminster travelling library. Out of politeness, she borrows a book, almost completely at random: a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. The following week, she goes back to return it, and takes out another: The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. And with that inspired choice, from then on, readers of The Uncommon Reader, this charming, sharp, subversive, witty novella by Alan Bennett, get to see Queen Elizabeth fall in love with reading.

The novella follows the Queen as she becomes addicted to reading, going through the stages most of us are so familiar with: the daunting sense of how much there is to read, and how little time; the irritation that everyday life gets in the way of reading; the desire to talk about your reading with other people (even those who may be hostile to it); the sense that literature is a muscle you develop, so that books that didn’t make sense to you at one stage of your life may be perfect for you when you have more experience. In this sense, the Queen is a very common reader, just like the rest of us. For me, half the pleasure of the book was getting to see someone else learn to love to read.

But she is also an uncommon reader. She has lived through decades of history as a major player. She has met authors, artists, politicians, prime ministers, kings, and bishops — every notable the world has to offer. She has travelled to every country and received greetings in every tongue. And as Bennett presents it, she finally defines herself, not as a spectator, but as a doer. Reading is witnessing life in all its glorious multiplicity. Writing is the doing of it.

Most of the reviews I’ve read of The Uncommon Reader, including the blurbs on the back of the book itself, emphasize how funny this novella is. And it is funny, or rather witty — I laughed out loud several times. But to my mind, the overwhelming sense of it was not comic. The Queen has a strong sense of regret, and of the passing of time, that gives it a tinge of melancholy, and there is also a definite sense that other people do not always understand the love of reading, and that it can be isolating. The conclusion is strong and subversive. It will make you think, and nod assent, but it won’t make you laugh.

My understanding is that the Queen herself read this book, and loved it. So did I. And I predict that you, a reader (common or un-) will love it, too.

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9 Responses to The Uncommon Reader

  1. Nymeth says:

    You make a very good point. Despite the several funny moments, the story really has a more melancholy side.

  2. Steph says:

    I had heard mixed things about this one, so wasn’t sure what to make of it. None of the other reviews I read had touched on the melancholic edge to the book, which definitely intrigues me. I’ll have to borrow this one from the library, I think.

  3. Matthew says:

    This book reminds me of The Remains of the Day (regret and nostalgia must be an English thing). The premise of the story bespeaks a comic orchestration, but the truth is one of soberness. The Queen can only discern, through a plethora of reading, what she has missed out in life because she has to take up the throne.

  4. Jenny says:

    Nymeth — I often wonder about books that are advertised as being funny and (to my mind at least) are much more melancholy. Does comedy sell better? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was another of these, that was billed as being laugh out loud funny and to me was quite sad.

    Steph — I would recommend it to anyone! It’s a fast read, only about 120 pages, and very wise and lovely about the power of reading.

    Matthew — I would never have thought to compare it to The Remains of the Day (servant/Queen!) but I see what you mean and I like the idea.

  5. there is a melancholy side to the novella, but I still enjoyed the wit and twist at the end. I really think this is one of the best novella’s I’ve read!

  6. adevotedreader says:

    I loved this, and would advise Steph to give it a go regardless of mixed reviews. The last line was the perfect way to end it, I smile even now when I think about it.

  7. Marie says:

    It sounds wonderful. I like that you found something in it besides the comic element. Great review.

  8. Jenny says:

    Serena and devotedreader — I agree that the twist at the end was perfect. Although I am not sure that Bennett’s arc from reader to writer is as universal as he suggests (this is not the twist, for anyone reading!), I loved the way he presented it with the Queen.

    Marie — thanks! I appreciate your stopping by.

  9. Pingback: Holiday reading « The Armenian Odar Reads

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