Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader 
Written by: Alan Bennett

Published: 2007

Synopsis: When the Queen in pursuit of her wandering corgis stumbles upon a mobile library she feels duty bound to borrow a book. Aided by Norman, a young man from the palace kitchen who frequents the library, Bennett describes the Queen's transformation as she discovers the liberating pleasures of the written word. With the poignant and mischievous wit of The History Boys, England's best loved author revels in the power of literature to change even the most uncommon reader's life.


I'm going to try really hard not to adopt the book's regal tone in this review but it's going to be really difficult because the one word I really want to use to describe it is quaint, and that just sends me down all kinds of dangerous pretentious, semi-vague, mock-English pathways. Also, I'll be wary not to use charming, sweet or cute, although all three words are screaming out at me demanding to be used.

Tom's lovely nana demanded recommended I read this short novella, herself using many of my forbidden words to sell it to me. Not that I've ever really needed to be sold on a book, but she made it sound so damn delicious and so teeny tiny (a piddly 120 pages) that I decided it needed to be read sooner rather than later. Actually, if I had simply been told the plot I might have needed a little selling. The royal family, at least, this incarnation (the blood-thirty royals of old were awesome) bore me senseless. They might be nice people but...YAWN! So the idea of a book, regardless of how short and sweet, focusing on the oldest and perhaps dullest of the bunch...well, I probably wouldn't have rushed to pick it up on my own. Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for a recommendation and with my busy schedule tiny books are all the more appealling and I felt like reading something completely different from my recent picks so TADA! Here I am.

In this novella the Queen finds herself coming across a mobile library on the grounds during one of her regular walks, and what begins as the acceptance of a book because it's the polite and proper thing to do becomes an obsession. After years of obedience, duty and very little time spent lost in a book the Queen falls hopelessly under the spell of books (something I imagine you can all relate to here!). With the help of her personal book selector, Norman, to find all the books she could desire, the Queen's voracious appetite for books begin to get in the way of her duty and responsibilities. Her attention to her outfits falter, she begins to arrive late to events and perhaps worst of all, she makes people uncomfortable by daring to try and discuss books with award-recipients, dignitaries and palace workers!

The book is ultimately a mix of the Queen's reflections on the wonder of reading and literature, a collection of quotes, names and story recaps and interactions with countless people who just do not understand this little late in life hobby. While I enjoyed the quips at the expense of her primary advisor, Simon (a New Zealander - therefore the natural enemy of this Australian reader!) the real beauty of this book is her reflections espousing the wonderment that reading provides anyone lucky enough to fall under its spell. Some of my favourite quotes were;
"Briefing is not reading. In fact, briefing is the opposite of reading. Briefing is terse, factual, and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up." (page 22)
 "Books are not about passing time. They're about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass...one wishes one had more of it." (page 29)
 "It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had lead a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go uncovered." (Page 31)
"A book is a device to ignite the immagination." (Page 34)
I adored the idea that someone who had had a life where every minute was ruled by appointments, commitments and public events, could finally find solace and escape in the pages of books. Not only that, but as her reading continued she realised exactly how stifling her previous life was the way she was living, and how amazing an experience it could be. Once she began reading she tried to actually connect with the people she met at events (although in most instances they weren't particularly pleased with this!), and she began to notice smaller details and changes in the emotions and attitudes of people around her - something she'd closed herself off to a long time ago. I also couldn't help but relate with her obsession and desire to constantly read all the time and read anything she could get her hands on. God only knows how often I've sat reading a book when I desperately needed to get work done, get some sleep or get ready to catch a bus.

In contrast with the happiness reading brings the Queen, everyone else seems to look at it as either a novelty or some horrific addiction akin to heroin. For some, like the Prime Minister and her advisor, they're annoyed that they don't have her full attention any more, while others seem honestly worried that reading, which is a luxury for many of the time poor, would further alienate an already alienated rich old lady. I might not be queen, but I've certainly faced people who are either incredulous that I have time to read or who see it as a waste of time, money and effort.

It's far from a perfect novel, there's this weird fascination with her reading "advisor" Norman being gay and always selecting homosexual writers for the Queen to read. Seriously, just about every section that he features has some mention of his "preference" - as it's sometimes referred to. Also, in trying to capture the voice of the Queen there is a lot of high-faluting language where one discusses what one's schedule has one doing for every minute of one's day.After a while, We are not amused. But they're pretty small annoyances, and since the book is so short they don't really have enough time to build into anything too frustrating.

So I've gotten this far without breaking any of the rules I set in the first paragraph, but I'm not sure how much longer I can hold back so I'll wrap up here. If you're a reader (which I know you all are) then this is a sweet little ode to reading and the fantastic contribution it makes to all of our lives. To set it apart from the many declarations of love we make on a daily basis though, it's wrapped up with an interesting little tale of a hobby discovered at the most unexpected time of life in a particularly uncommon reader. A pleasant, quick and sweet little read.


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