Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader is a charming, unabashed celebration of the lure of literature that posits what might happen if the Queen of England were to become a bookworm. Bennett is a slyly subversive writer, at once entertaining and thought-provoking. Best known for his dozens of plays and screenplays, including The Madness of George III and The History Boys, he is also the author of several books of autobiography and short fiction, including a recently published pair of cheeky stories, Smut, about the hidden sexual impulses of two middle-aged, outwardly respectable matrons. One appealing aspect of The Uncommon Reader is that you can appreciate it fully even if you've never read another word by Bennett though chances are, it will make you want to.
As befits a comedy of manners, Bennett's Queen starts reading out of courtesy to the mobile librarian she finds parked in her castle drive, rather than out of genuine interest. Bennett explains, "She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was left to other people." (Note Bennett's absolutely killing, dead-on use of "one.")
The Queen gropes blindly with her first picks, limited to names she recognizes and the amusing advice of a royal servant with a bias toward gay fiction. She finds Ivy Compton-Burnett rough going, but Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love "turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she would have thought, were work."
Not everyone is thrilled with the Queen's newly discovered passion, and this is where Bennett ramps up his satire, skewering everyone from heads of state to the royal corgis. To the dismay of her staff, instead of the dutiful, punctual, predictable monarch they're used to, the Queen becomes "what is known as a handful."
Bennett also has fun ribbing authors, who the Queen decides are better company on the page than in person. Running throughout is a cunning subtext of literary commentary. When her guards confiscate a book she's left in her limo, calling it a potentially dangerous device, she protests: "But it was Anita Brookner!" The savvy reader will understand that Brookner's novels about older women who run off to France for some excitement are as mild and harmless as literature gets. Note, too, which authors the Queen's jealous dogs chew to bits whenever they get a chance: Ian McEwan and A. S. Byatt wholly absorbing attention-grabbers.
Far from work, what the Queen discovers is that reading is like a gateway drug to thinking. It's also addictive: "What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do." Sound familiar? Reading, she realizes, is "a muscle" that needs to be developed: when she returns to Compton-Burnett and even George Eliot and late Henry James - - after having worked her way up through the literary canon, she's ready for them.
I realize that some people may regard books touting the joy of same as self- promoting meta-literature. But Bennett's delightful novella goes way beyond mere propagandizing. The Uncommon Reader is a love letter to literature, much as filmmakers François Truffaut's Day for Night and Martin Scorsese's Hugo are paeans to movies.
Not surprisingly, Bennett is hardly the only writer to wax elegiac over the power of prose. If you're up for another one, Penelope Lively's How It All Began concerns an uncommonly appealing, retired English teacher convalescing at her daughter's house after a mugging that disrupts multiple lives. She complains of missing "her familiar walls, lined with language" and reflects on how her life has been informed and enlarged by reading, as if she'd been "handed a passport to another country."
Finally, while we're celebrating book love, you may want to check out Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. This delightful chapbook of essays on all things bookish considers, among other things, the trials of merging libraries with one's mate and the thrill of meeting up with sesquipedalians which she kindly tells us means "long words." Like Bennett's The Uncommon Reader and Lively's How It All Began, it's bliss for bibliophiles.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin