The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

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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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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

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, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

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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.’


‘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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The Uncommon Reader 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
Whether or not you buy the dramatic twist at the end, this little book is engaging, original and surprisingly funny. I found myself smiling and nodding throughout and on several occasions laughing aloud. The book can be enjoyed on several levels, as Bennett covers serious, timely themes about the value, pleasure and role of reading and the way that fits into the modern world. You can derive from it what you will. It's an easy, fun read, well worth the rather minimal time required for the 120 page novella.
MinnesotaReader More than 1 year ago
Alan Bennett has brilliantly crafted a creative testimonial to the life-changing power of reading. This captivating novella cleverly imagines the happenings following Queen Elizabeth II's accidental discovery of the library's bookmobile on the castle grounds. She reads one book...then another...and soon she is more deeply devoted to her books than she is to her public duties. Excuses are made to accomodate her passionate reading habit, and staff members began to resent her literary pursuit. Eventually, she begins recording notes and musings in a notebook. A laugh-out-loud ending completes this charming book. Mr. Bennett has written a delightful tale about discovering the wonderful world of literature and how it can happily change lives, even the Queen of England's! He has beautifully portrayed a passionate reader...always yearning to get back to one's book. I could certainly relate to the Queen's obsession with books. As with her, finding the time to read is a priority and very often reading interferes with my everyday duties. I have also experienced resentment from others when I branched out to do something different. I absolutely loved this delightfully entertaining book. It left me reflecting on how reading has influenced my life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have given this book as a gift at least six times, always to rave reviews. It has laugh-out-loud moments, it's engrossing, and for the two hours it takes to read one finds oneself very much elsewhere. Good for anyone who really loves to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Her Majesty the Queen takes up a new hobby, reading and she finds it drains her of enthusiasm of anything else. Reading becomes her addiction an addiction that causes her to ignore everything and everyone. Her devotion to reading disrupts her family and household and they scheme to get her to stop reading so much when as suddenly as she began reading she slows down but what they don¿t know is she¿s writing. She started writing after coming to the realization that she had no voice. She throws a party and makes an announcement so tremendous everyone pauses in shock.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This delightful modern fairy tale casts HRM Elizabeth II as the heroine who, while pursuing an errant corgi, stumbles late into a mobile library and a life of reading, thereby disconcerting her husband, relatives, the powers that be in the palace, and the Prime Minister to name a few. Easily gulped in one happy sitting, this book is the perfect gift for the truly addicted readers in your life. I suspect many will have the same reaction as the first person I gave a copy, who said, 'Don't you wish it were true?' Well, yes. One does.
SleepDreamWrite More than 1 year ago
From the summary and title, this sounded like a cute and charming read. And it was. The writing I especially liked and well, the Queen's love boos and well, just reading. Trying to read more book theme type books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alan Bennet creates an odd sequence of events that you would never expect to happen. In the beginning I would have never thought that Queen Elizabeth would develop such a loce for books that would interfere with her duties of being the Queen. While reading the book you see the Queen's life trasform from a normal queen to one who likes to sit inside and read all day. With an unexpected situation such as this Alan Bennet keeps you wanting to read more to find out all of the interesting twists of the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In the book, The Uncommon Reader, a novella, by Alan Bennett, readers see a more human version of the Queen. In this novel, the Queen comes upon a traveling library while out with her dogs. She decides to check out a book although she has not read in many years. A week later she returns the book, unsatisfied, however she decides to check out one more book. This book, The Pursuit of Love, got the Queen enamored about reading. Soon enough the Queen is bringing her book everywhere and often making decisions based on the lessons she has learned from the books.       I thought this book was a very enjoyable read because it allowed me to see a more human side to the Queen. Through reading books, the Queen was able to connect more with the people she served, learning about the lives they lived through the characters she read about. This allowed her to better serve the people. Alan Bennett did  a great job in allowing readers to see a more relatable  version of the Queen. Although this novella does have strong language, I would recommend it to any teenage and adult who wants a quick fun read. Sometimes you can relate to even the most well known people, even the Queen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really must read more of Alan Bennett.
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Vaoldster More than 1 year ago
People who read a lot will love this witty book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With unexpected last line that made me laugh:)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This would be a book I'd recommend to a reluctant high school student who had a book review to hand in the next day. I always wanted to do the bookmobile thing.
MA38 More than 1 year ago
A charming and pleasant easy read - recommended to others who found it to be just that. Makes the Queen very human. MA38
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With the dry wit the Brits are famous for, Bennett imagines the Queen of England discovering the joys of reading in her later middle age. Clever pokes at the institution of the monarchy are just frosting on the cake. Short, enjoyable read.
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