I picked up Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader at the library last Saturday. I opened it up when I got home intending to just dip in. Yeah, right. A couple hours later I finished the book with a happy sigh. It’s a slim, quick read, a novella, and utterly delightful.
The Queen is out in the garden one day chasing down her corgis. They are out barking like crazy. In the back garden by the kitchen she spies the library bookmobile. She’s never noticed it there before, and feeling concern of what they might think of her barking dogs, HRM goes to apologize for the ruckus. The only ones in the Bookmobile are Mr. Hutchings, the librarian, and Norman a young man who works in the kitchens and is very fond of reading. The Queen feels obligated to borrow a book once she is there and Mr. Hutchings, a sad excuse for a librarian if there ever was one, cannot manage even one recommendation. So the Queen takes out an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. She doesn’t much like the book, but brings it back the next week and decides to borrow another. This one Norman suggests and she likes it very much. The Queen becomes hooked on reading.
Soon Norman is promoted from the kitchens to be the Queen’s personal book recommender and reading partner. And it isn’t long before the Queen’s reading habits begin to interfere with the performance of her duties. She learns how to read in the car while appearing to be waving to the crowds and enjoying the parade or whatever she is out for. She stops asking people she meets about traffic and where they are from and instead leaves them speechless by asking what they are reading. The Queen also begins to be bored by all the ribbon cuttings, and factory tours and the whole performance piece of her duties. Her staff find a way to get rid of Norman by sending him off to college, all expenses paid. I won’t tell you what happens after that, only that the book is a pleasant afternoon’s reading and that you might want to have some tea and scones or cucumber sandwiches or something along with it.
Part of the delight of the book is the telescoped process of becoming a bookworm. You will recognize yourself, reader, in the things the Queen does and says. You will know the devastation of packing books for a trip and the luggage they are packed in not arriving with you. You will sympathize with the Queen’s desire to hurry through a task in order to get back to a book. And you will understand all too well the need to take a book with you everywhere and the desire to talk to someone, anyone, about it.
Bennett, whom I have never read, has a great sense of humor. At one point the Queen naturally wants to meet the authors she has been reading. Because she is the Queen she can throw a party and have them come. But the party does not go well, at least for the Queen. She finds she doesn’t know what to say the the authors and they aren’t the people she imagined them to be. And so,
authors, she soon decided were probably best met with in the pages of their novels, and as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books. Nor did they seem to think one had done them a kindness by reading their writings. Rather they had done one the kindness by writing them.
A sentiment we can all relate to with some favorite author or another.
If you are looking for an afternoon’s entertainment with a bookish twist, you cant’ go wrong with The Uncommon Reader.