I finished Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader over the weekend. It was a lovely little fairy tale about why people need to read, and I enjoyed it immensely. Alan Bennett is one of my favorite British playwrights--he wrote The History Boys, The Lady in the Van, and The Madness of King George. In this story, he imagines what it would be like if the Queen of England suddenly began to read as a pastime.
It starts with the Queen visiting the mobile library van that is parked outside the palace, because she feels a sense of duty after her dogs have disturbed the van and its occupants. After borrowing her first books out of that sense of duty, she soon gets sucked into reading, and her casual hobby becomes an obsession. I won't give it away, but it ends with the country a changed place because the Queen has become passionate about books.
It's a slight story, but cleverly done, and I almost always love books about reading--it's always nice to have someone affirm the importance of books, reading, and writing in our lives.
I also enjoyed Bennett's conjecture about what it means to be Queen, what her priorities might be as a monarch, and how she would deal with people, based on her training, background and unique position in the world.
And there are some wonderful quotes about reading, writing, and the intellectual life.
When describing how uncomfortable the library at the palace was, how unsuited it was to curling up with a good book, and indeed, how inaccessible the books there were, the Queen thought:
No, if reading was to be done it was better done in a place not set aside for it.Here's another quote I liked:
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.And here's another quote, one I had to smile at, as I remembered times I have been impatient with some authors, including Henry James:
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?'So, this is a charming little book about the power of reading, and I have to recommend it to all of you avid readers out there. I also remember that Stefanie at So Many Books wrote a wonderful review of this book, so please check that out here.
'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.'