The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

4.1 49
by Alan Bennett
     
 

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From one of England's most celebrated writers, the author of the award-winning The History Boys, a funny and superbly observed novella about the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading

When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering

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Overview

From one of England's most celebrated writers, the author of the award-winning The History Boys, a funny and superbly observed novella about the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading

When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

Editorial Reviews

Jeremy McCarter
The Uncommon Reader,…is a kind of palace fairy tale for grown-ups. Once again [Bennett] tells a story about an eccentric old lady, a character type he seems to enjoy. (He wrote a wonderful memoir, The Lady in the Van, about the nut job who lived in his garden for 15 years.) This time, his odd, isolated heroine is the queen of England. The story of her budding love affair with literature blends the comic and the poignant so smoothly it can only be by Bennett. It's not his very best work, but it distills his virtues well enough to suggest how such a distinctive style might have arisen.
—The New York Times
Michiko Kakutani
In The Uncommon Reader Mr. Bennett poses a delicious and very funny what-if: What if Queen Elizabeth at the age of 70-something were suddenly to become a voracious reader? What if she were to become an avid fan of Proust and Balzac, Turgenev and Trollope and Hardy? And what if reading were to lead her, in turn, to becoming a writer? Mr. Bennett's musings on these matters have produced a delightful little book that unfolds into a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading…Mr. Bennett has written a captivating fairy tale. It's a tale that's as charming as the old Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn movie "Roman Holiday," and as keenly observed as Stephen Frears's award-winning movie "The Queen"—a tale that showcases its author's customary elan and keen but humane wit.
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
In this charming novella Alan Bennett imagines what might occur if the sovereign of England, Queen Elizabeth herself, were suddenly to develop a ravenous passion for books. What might in less capable hands result in a labored exercise or an embarrassing instance of literary lese-majeste here becomes a delicious light comedy, as well as a meditation on the power of print…You can finish The Uncommon Reader in an hour or two, but it is charming enough and wise enough that you will almost certainly want to keep it around for rereading—unless you decide to share it with friends. Either way, this little book offers what English readers would call very good value for money. Enjoy.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

British screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Bennett, author of the Tony Award-winning play The History Boys, has written a wry and unusual story about the subversive potential of reading. Bennett posits a theoretical situation in which Queen Elizabeth II becomes an avid reader, and the new ideas she thus encounters change the way she thinks and reigns. Coming upon a traveling library near Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth, who almost never reads, decides to take a look. Mostly out of politeness, she begins to borrow from the library via a kitchen page. As she begins to view reading as her "duty," a way "to find out what people are like," she is exposed to increasingly sophisticated books and ideas that criticize society. As Elizabeth loses interest in the chain of ship launches and groundbreakings that make up her reign, her staff becomes resentful, and the story ends in an unexpected way. Though the book is at times annoyingly snobbish and harping that people do not read enough, the unusual story line keeps readers engrossed. Recommended for larger public libraries and libraries where British literature is popular.
—Christina Bauer

Kirkus Reviews
A royal fable celebrating the transformative properties (and a few of the unsettling consequences) of reading as an obsession. In a country of commoners, the uncommon reader is the Queen. She has never been a reader, because reading isn't something that "one" (as she invariably refers to herself) does. Yet an unlikely incident involving her dogs and a mobile library making its weekly appearance outside Buckingham Palace moves her to borrow a book. And then another. And another, until reading has become her life's focus. Though the prolific Bennett is better known in America for his plays and screenplays (his Tony Award-winning play, The History Boys, was made into a movie in 2007), his subtle wit and tonal command show why he is so beloved in his native Britain. Yet this slight novella feels padded, because once he puts his plot into motion-the Queen reads, reading changes the Queen, others are uncomfortable with the changes-he doesn't really have anywhere to take it except in circles, as it moves toward what might be a surprise ending. There are some funny bits: her questioning of the president of France about Jean Genet (of whom he hasn't a clue) and the disdain she develops for the "perpetually irritating Henry James." She also enjoys a lovely visit with one of her literary subjects, Alice Munro. Perhaps the keenest insight here concerns her difficulty with Jane Austen, whose novels pivot so frequently on class distinctions that the Queen herself has never experienced. Those who love reading will recognize the process of the Queen's enrapturing, how one book inevitably leads to another, and so many others, and that the richness of the reading life will always be offset by therecognition that time grows shorter as the list of books grows longer. Yet this is ultimately a breezy afternoon's read, one that doesn't seem like it took all that much more effort to write. If, as the Queen discovers, reading is "a muscle" that she has "seemingly developed," this novella reads like light calisthenics rather than heavy lifting.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312427641
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
09/30/2008
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
128
Sales rank:
114,783
Product dimensions:
4.60(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.’

‘Ah,’ said the president. ‘Oui.’

The ‘Marseillaise’ and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.

‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,’ and she took up her soup spoon, ‘was he as good?’

Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous

playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Can-terbury.

‘Jean Genet,’ said the Queen again, helpfully. ‘Vous le connaissez?’

‘Bien sûr,’ said the president.

‘Il m’intéresse,’ said the Queen.

‘Vraiment?’ The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.

It was the dogs’ fault. They were snobs and ordinarily, having been in the garden, would have gone up the front steps, where a footman generally opened them the door.

Today, though, for some reason they careered along the terrace, barking their heads off, and scampered down the steps again and round the end along the side of the house, where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.

It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasn’t a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.

The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, ‘I’m sorry about this awful racket,’ where-upon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.

She put her head out of the door. ‘Shut up this minute, you silly creatures,’ which, as had been the move’s intention, gave the driver/librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.

‘One has never seen you here before, Mr . . .’

‘Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, ma’am.’

‘Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?’

‘Only from Westminster, ma’am.’

‘And you are …?’

‘Norman, ma’am. Seakins.’

‘And where do you work?’

‘In the kitchens, ma’am.’

‘Oh. Do you have much time for reading?’

‘Not really, ma’am.’

‘I’m the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.’

Mr Hutchings smiled helpfully.

‘Is there anything you would recommend?’

‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; pref-

erences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticket?’

‘No problem,’ said Mr Hutchings.

‘One is a pensioner,’ said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.

‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books.’

‘Six? Heavens!’

Meanwhile the ginger-haired young man had made his choice and given his book to the librarian to stamp. Still playing for time, the Queen picked it up.

‘What have you chosen, Mr Seakins?’ expecting it to be, well, she wasn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t what it was. ‘Oh. Cecil Beaton. Did you know him?’

‘No, ma’am.’

‘No, of course not. You’d be too young. He always used to be round here, snapping away. And a bit of a tartar. Stand here, stand there. Snap, snap. And there’s a book about him now?’

‘Several, ma’am.’

‘Really? I suppose everyone gets written about sooner or later.’

She riffled through it. ‘There’s probably a picture of me in it somewhere. Oh yes. That one.

Of course, he wasn’t just a photographer. He designed, too. Oklahoma!, things like that.’

‘I think it was My Fair Lady, ma’am.’

‘Oh, was it?’ said the Queen, unused to being contradicted. ‘Where did you say you worked?’ She put the book back in the boy’s big red hands.

‘In the kitchens, ma’am.’

She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking

volumes she saw a name she remembered. ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr Hutchings to stamp.

‘What a treat!’ she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.’

‘She’s not a popular author, ma’am.’

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.’

Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn’t necessarily the road to the public’s heart.

The Queen looked at the photograph on the back of the jacket. ‘Yes. I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head.’ She smiled and Mr Hutchings knew that the visit was over. ‘Goodbye.’

He inclined his head as they had told him at the library to do should this eventuality ever arise, and the Queen went off in the direction of the garden with the dogs madly barking again, while Norman, bearing his Cecil Beaton, skirted a chef lounging outside by the bins having a cigarette and went back to the kitchens.

Shutting up the van and driving away, Mr Hutchings reflected that a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett would take some reading. He had never got very far with her himself and thought, rightly, that borrowing the book had just been a polite gesture. Still, it was one that he appreciated and

as more than a courtesy. The council was always threatening to cut back on the library, and the patronage of so distinguished a borrower (or customer, as the council preferred to call it) would do him no harm.

‘We have a travelling library,’ the Queen said to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’

‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’

‘You remember Oklahoma!?’

‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.

‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’

‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’

‘Smelled delicious.’

‘What’s that?’

‘A book. I borrowed it.’

‘Dead, I suppose.’

‘Who?’

‘The Beaton fellow.’

‘Oh yes. Everybody’s dead.’

‘Good show, though.’

And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

Excerpted from The Uncommon Reader by Forelake Ltd. Copyright © 2007 by Forelake Ltd. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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