I am, as a general rule, suspicious of books whose central premise relies on putting real people in contrived situations that never happened. So Alan Bennett’s book about Queen Elizabeth becoming a bookworm gave me pause. It seemed too gimmicky, too clearly engineered to garner the affections of bookish Anglophiles everywhere. And cutesy comic novels often don’t sit quite right with me. But then Jenny talked about the sadness in it, and I thought perhaps there was more to it than the premise suggested, so I added it to my list. I am delighted to report that I enjoyed every bit of it.
The book starts out much as I expected. Queen Elizabeth is walking her corgis when she encounters a mobile library on the palace grounds. She takes out a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett out of politeness, and although she finds this first book hard going, she then ends up taking out a Nancy Mitford, again out of politeness. From then on, she is hooked. She starts taking a book with her everywhere she goes, getting irritated at interruptions to her reading, making a TBR list, and generally doing all the things that so many avid readers do. She even stops paying attention to her wardrobe, and her former habit of punctuality becomes a thing of the past when her books start to become more appealing than yet another public appearance.
I could naturally see much of myself in the queen’s behavior, and I got a lot of chuckles out of that sense of recognition. But this book really isn’t entirely about the pleasure of reading. Bennett isn’t writing a chipper little salute to literature. The queen’s reading opens her mind in many ways and brings her great pleasure, but such an all-consuming passion also brings complications. These complications are to some degree the stuff of comedy, but not entirely so. Reading changes the queen—it changes her relationships and the way she sees the world. She gains a great deal, but loses something too.
Listening to this book got me thinking about my own reading. I’ve had many of the same experiences as the queen, both the comic and the not so comic. I’ve arrived late or failed to spend adequate time on my hair because I was too absorbed in a book. My love of reading has kept me from pursuing my interest in photography to the degree that I would like. Like the queen, I’ve learned a great deal about other people by reading, but I’ve also sometimes chosen reading a book over calling or sending a note to a friend or family member who might like to hear from me, which means my books have kept me from actively demonstrating the sympathy that I’ve learned to feel in part because of my books. So you see the conundrum. Bennett’s version of the queen faces a similar sort of balancing act, and I was fascinated to see how she juggled her shifting priorities and how her priorities continued to change over her reading life.
The audiobook was read by the author, Alan Bennett. It took a couple of chapters for me to get used to his voice, but once I was hooked, I was hooked. And I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to find that this little book, perhaps easily dismissed as a trifle, has a richness beyond my expectations.