I happened to pick this up from the library, because it was written by Alan Bennett, who is more famous for writing The History Boys, a book which I have not read but the movie version of which I greatly liked.
20 pages into the book, I was a little bored by the silliness of it all. The slightly flippant tone and simplistic characters were barely enough to hold my interest.The only thing that kept me going on was that, The Uncommon Reader, is a book about books. And I can’t resist that.
So as per the plot, if one can call it that, the Queen of England discovers a mobile library that visits her palace, and is introduced to reading. The premise itself is incredulous because how can a monarch and diplomat, not have discovered the joys of reading earlier in her life. Ignoring that I plod along with the Queen as she is introduced to the world of books and her reading is aided and abetted by a kitchen boy Norman. She discovers that ” Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting” – a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.
Where the novella really gets interesting, is everyone’s reaction to her reading. A seemingly harmless hobby is less than welcome. Her personal advisers and prime ministers are distinctly uncomfortable with this unproductive habit, and are worried that the Queen’s increasing intention of reading books out at diplomatic events may cause some political scandal. Especially, they seem to have little control over the kind of content she reads which may be misconstrued as political campaigning or criticism.
Like most addicted readers I know and I confess to be myself, the Queen soon loses interest in everything around her and is seized with the feeling that there isn’t enough time to get through all literature worth reading.
“It was reading, and love it she did, there were times when she wished she had never opened a book and entered into other lives. It had spoiled her. Or spoiled her for this, anyway”
The book also traces the inevitable transition from a reader to the writer. When the reader realizes that “Reading is not doing” and their own voice has to be found.
As I was flipping through the pages, I wonder if Mr. Bennett could have created the same charm if the Queen was to have discovered and loved knitting. Would it throw the Prime Minister in the same confusion if the Queen wanted to talk about purls and stitches on national television, as she wanted to talk about Dickens. This thought brings me to the question of who is the true hero of this novel, the Queen or reading?
The story is quirky and there are few laughs to be had. It’s not a classic in its own right, but if you have a few hours to spare on a weekend, then this is just perfect for it.