Monday, April 28, 2008

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

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?'
'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.'
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.


stefanie said...

It is a charming book, isn't it? I saw yesterday that it is up for a humor writing award in the UK. I hope it wins!

Gentle Reader said...

stefanie--charming is the right word to describe it, and I'm glad it's up for a humor award. I think Alan Bennett is very funny!

Gentle Reader said...

Oh, and Stefanie--Loved your review, by the way--and, as I recall, it pushed me over the edge to get to the book!

litlove said...

I've been meaning to get hold of this ever since I read Stefanie's review - you prompt me, Ms Gentle Reader! Loved what you said about it and must read it myself.

Dorothy W. said...

I loved this book too -- both what it had to say about reading and its depiction of the Queen -- she was an appealing character! It would be cool if it won a humor award.

LisaMM said...

This is the 3rd time I've seen this reviewed in the last week.. are the book gods trying to tell me something? You may want to check out the review at Booking Mama. She liked it too:

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--I'd love to hear what you think!

dorothy--I loved his depiction of the Queen--she was appealing, I agree, and she made me laugh :)

lisamm--thanks, I will go check out that post. Isn't it funny how you haven't heard about a book (or movie, or restaurant, or whatever) and then all of a sudden it seems to be everywhere? That happens to me all the time!

Lisa said...

Oh, I loved this book! It was so funny, and I loved all the quotes regarding reading.

Anonymous said...

I love the "Do get on!" line and would have uttered it myself if I were English...and Queen.

Tara said...

I just love your description "about why people need to read". Okay, I'm sold. I've read reviews of this but I really need to just read the book!

Gentle Reader said...

lisa--me too, I laughed out loud at times :)

teom--I know, that line killed me!

tara--let me know what you think when you read it :)

Matt said...

Henry James does take some patience. I'd never read him if I'm in a hurry, or have not enough time to give him the attention his winding prose demands.

This sounds a very neat book. I'll take your word for it. :)

Eva said...

That Henry James quote made me laugh too! I love James' novels, but his novellas really annoy me (I have no idea why that is...)

I saw over at Matt's blog that we're both reading The Brothers K this summer (and Matt is too), which is exciting!

Buy Cialis said...

Uncommon reader is one of the greatest books I've ever read so far, wonderful recommendation!

Anonymous said...

I just started reading the book yesterday, and I love it. I too love stories about books. The book contains soo many quotes that I enjoy thoroughly.