The Uncommon Reader: A Novellaby Alan Bennett
From one of England's most celebrated writers, 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,/b>/b>/b>
From one of England's most celebrated writers, 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.
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.
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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.
“A delicious and very funny what-if.... a delightful little book that unfolds into a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading.... Mr. Bennett has written a captivating fairy tale ... a tale that showcases its author's customary élan and keen but humane wit.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Bennett's jokes are so beautifully modulated.... The Uncommon Reader is a piece of audacious lèse majesté which, in an earlier age, would have put its author's head on a spike.... Bennett knows what he is doing.” The Guardian
“A kind of palace fairy tale for grown-ups.... [[Bennett's]] account of the queen's adventures often made me laugh out loud.” Jeremy McCarter, The New York Times
“Briskly original and subversively funny.” Publishers Weekly
“[Bennett's] subtle wit and tonal command show why he is so beloved in his native Britain.” Kirkus Reviews
“Alan Bennett is one of the greatest comic writers alive, and The Uncommon Reader is Bennett at his best--touching, thoughtful, hilarious, and exquisite in its observations.” Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary
“Hilarious and stunning . . . The conceit offered here by Mr. Bennett, the beloved British author and dramatist, is that a woman of power can find and love the power in books. It is a simple equation and one that yields deep rewards. In what is a surprising and surprisingly touching novella, Mr. Bennett shows us why books matter to the queen, his "uncommon reader" and why they matter so much to the rest of us.” Carol Herman, The Washington Times
“Hilarious and pointed . . . The Uncommon Reader is a political and literary satire. But it's also a lovely lesson in the redemptive and subversive power of reading and how one book can lead to another and another and another. . . . But most of all, The Uncommon Reader is a lot of fun to read.” Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
“One of the most subtly ingratiating prose stylists of our time . . . charming enough and wise enough that you will certainly want to keep it around for rereading--unless you decided to share it with friends.” Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“Clever and entertaining . . . The Uncommon Reader is a celebration of both reading and its counterpart, independent thinking.” Maud Newton, Los Angeles Times
Read an Excerpt
The Uncommon Reader
By Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Forelake Ltd.
All rights reserved.
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 Canterbury.
'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,' whereupon 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; preferences 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.'
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, 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?'
'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.'
'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.
The following week she had intended to give the book to a lady-in-waiting to return, but finding herself taken captive by her private secretary and forced to go through the diary in far greater detail than she thought necessary, she was able to cut off discussion of a tour round a road research laboratory by suddenly declaring that it was Wednesday and she had to go change her book at the travelling library. Her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, an over-conscientious New Zealander of whom great things were expected, was left to gather up his papers and wonder why ma'am needed a travelling library when she had several of the stationary kind of her own.
Minus the dogs this visit was somewhat calmer, though once again Norman was the only borrower.
'How did you find it, ma'am?' asked Mr Hutchings.
'Dame Ivy? A little dry. And everybody talks the same way, did you notice that?'
'To tell you the truth, ma'am, I never got through more than a few pages. How far did your Majesty get?'
'Oh, to the end. Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what's on one's plate. That's always been my philosophy.'
'There was actually no need to have brought the book back, ma'am. We're downsizing and all the books on that shelf are free.'
'You mean I can have it?' She clutched the book to her. 'I'm glad I came. Good afternoon, Mr Seakins. More Cecil Beaton?'
Norman showed her the book he was looking at, this time something on David Hockney. She leafed through it, gazing unperturbed at young men's bottoms hauled out of Californian swimming pools or lying together on unmade beds.
'Some of them,' she said, 'some of them don't seem altogether finished. This one is quite definitely smudged.'
'I think that was his style then, ma'am,' said Norman. 'He's actually quite a good draughtsman.'
The Queen looked at Norman again. 'You work in the kitchens?'
She hadn't really intended to take out another book, but decided that now she was here it was perhaps easier to do it than not, though regarding what book to choose, she felt as baffled as she had been the previous week. The truth was she didn't really want a book at all and certainly not another Ivy Compton-Burnett, which was too hard going altogether.
So it was lucky that this time her eye happened to fall on a reissued volume of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. She picked it up. 'Now. Didn't her sister marry the Mosley man?'
Mr Hutchings said he believed she did.
'And the mother-in-law of another sister was my mistress of the robes?'
'I don't know about that, ma'am.'
'Then of course there was the rather sad sister who had the fling with Hitler. And one sister became a Communist. And I think there was another besides. But this is Nancy?'
Novels seldom came as well-connected as this and the Queen felt correspondingly reassured, so it was with some confidence that she gave the book to Mr Hutchings to be stamped.
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.
As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed, and passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. 'All right, old girl?'
'Of course. I'm reading.'
'Again?' And he went off, shaking his head.
The next morning she had a little sniffle and, having no engagements, stayed in bed saying she felt she might be getting flu. This was uncharacteristic and also not true; it was actually so that she could get on with her book.
'The Queen has a slight cold' was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.
The following day the Queen had one of her regular sessions with her private secretary, with as one of the items on the agenda what these days is called 'human resources'.
'In my day,' she had told him, 'it was called "personnel".' Although actually it wasn't. It was called 'the servants'. She mentioned this, too, knowing it would provoke a reaction.
'That could be misconstrued, ma'am,' said Sir Kevin. 'One's aim is always to give the public no cause for offence. "Servants" sends the wrong message.'
'"Human resources",' said the Queen, 'sends no message at all. At least not to me. However, since we're on the subject of human resources, there is one human resource currently working inthe kitchens whom I would like promoted, or at any rate brought upstairs.'
Sir Kevin had never heard of Seakins but on consulting several underlings Norman was eventually located.
'I cannot understand,' said Her Majesty, 'what he is doing in the kitchens in the first place. He's obviously a young man of some intelligence.'
'Not dolly enough,' said the equerry, though to the private secretary not to the Queen. 'Thin, ginger-haired. Have a heart.'
'Madam seems to like him,' said Sir Kevin. 'She wants him on her floor.'
Thus it was that Norman found himself emancipated from washing dishes and fitted (with some difficulty) into a page's uniform and brought into waiting, where one of his first jobs was predictably to do with the library.
Not free the following Wednesday (gymnastics in Nuneaton), the Queen gave Norman her Nancy Mitford to return, telling him that there was apparently a sequel and she wanted to read that, too, plus anything else besides he thought she might fancy.
This commission caused him some anxiety. Well-read up to a point, he was largely self-taught, his reading tending to be determined by whether an author was gay or not. Fairly wide remit though this was, it did narrow things down a bit, particularly when choosing a book for someone else, and the more so when that someone else happened to be the Queen.
Nor was Mr Hutchings much help, except that when he mentioned dogs as a subject that might interest Her Majesty it reminded Norman of something he had read that could fit the bill, J. R. Ackerley's novel My Dog Tulip. Mr Hutchings was dubious, pointing out that it was gay.
'Is it?' said Norman innocently. 'I didn't realise that. She'll think it's just about the dog.'
He took the books up to the Queen's floor and, having been told to make himself as scarce as possible, when the duke came by hid behind a boulle cabinet.
'Saw this extraordinary creature this afternoon,' HRH reported later. 'Ginger-stick-in-waiting.'
'That would be Norman,' said the Queen. 'I met him in the travelling library. He used to work in the kitchens.'
'I can see why,' said the duke.
'He's very intelligent,' said the Queen.
'He'll have to be,' said the duke. 'Looking like that.'
'Tulip,' said the Queen to Norman later. 'Funny name for a dog.'
'It's supposed to be fiction, ma'am, only the author did have a dog in life, an Alsatian.' (He didn't tell her its name was Queenie.) 'So it's really disguised autobiography.'
'Oh,' said the Queen. 'Why disguise it?' Norman thought she would find out when she read the book, but he didn't say so.
'None of his friends liked the dog, ma'am.'
'One knows that feeling very well,' said the Queen, and Norman nodded solemnly, the royal dogs being generally unpopular. The Queen smiled. What a find Norman was. She knew that she inhibited, made people shy, and few of the servants behaved like themselves. Oddity though he was, Norman was himself and seemed incapable of being anything else. That was very rare.
The Queen, though, might have been less pleased had she known that Norman was unaffected by her because she seemed to him so ancient, her royalty obliterated by her seniority. Queen she might be, but she was also an old lady, and since Norman's introduction to the world of work had been via an old people's home on Tyneside, old ladies held no terrors for him. To Norman she was his employer, but her age made her as much patient as Queen and in both capacities to be humoured, though this was, it's true, before he woke up to how sharp she was and how much wasted.
She was also intensely conventional and when she had started to read she thought perhaps she ought to do some of it at least in the place set aside for the purpose, namely the palace library. But though it was called the library and was indeed lined with books, a book was seldom if ever read there. Ultimatums were delivered there, lines drawn, prayer books compiled and marriages decided upon, but should one want to curl up with a book the library was not the place. It was not easy even to lay hands on something to read, as on the open shelves, so-called, the books were sequestered behind locked and gilded grilles. Many of them were priceless, which was another discouragement. No, if reading was to be done it was better done in a place not set aside for it. The Queen thought that there might be a lesson there and she went back upstairs.
Excerpted from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Copyright © 2007 Forelake Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Alan Bennett has been one of England's leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His work includes the Talking Heads television series, and the stage plays Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, and The Madness of King George III. His play, The History Boys, filmed in 2006, won six Tony Awards, including best play. His memoir, Untold Stories, was a number-one bestseller in the United Kingdom.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I really must read more of Alan Bennett.
People who read a lot will love this witty book.
With unexpected last line that made me laugh:)
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.
A charming and pleasant easy read - recommended to others who found it to be just that. Makes the Queen very human. MA38
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.