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The Uncommon Reader: A Novella by 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, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312427641
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 09/30/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 70,186
Product dimensions: 4.60(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.20(d)

About 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.

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.’


‘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.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Uncommon Reader are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Uncommon Reader.

Discussion Questions

1. Does your group meet regularly? If so, how do you think the queen, as fountain of honor, would appraise your list of reading so far?

2. The queen says that she reads because, "One has a duty to find out what people are like." Yet she begins by reading Nancy Mitford and Ivy Compton-Burnett, hardly a stretch for Her Royal Majesty. How did you begin your reading career? Was it Anne of Green Gables or Barbara Cartland? What treasured books on your group's list closely reflect your own world and background? Do you read to understand others? Is anyone present at this meeting a member of the titled aristocracy?

3. Early in The Uncommon Reader, the queen explains that she has resisted reading because it is a hobby, and therefore an expression of a preference—preferences exclude people and are to be avoided. Why does she fear that reading will exclude people – haven't we been brought together today by reading? Is your reading group very exclusive? Have you ever denied membership to someone who wanted to join?

4. "Herself part of the panoply of the world, why now was she intrigued by books, which, whatever else they might be, were just a reflection of the world or a version of it? Books? She had seen the real thing." Do you believe there is a difference between reading and experiencing? Isn't the act of reading a form of experience, or is that vein of thinking distinctly privileged?

5. At first the queen says that her purpose in reading is not primarily literary: it is for analysis and reflection. Why exactly do you read; is it a lofty endeavor or a fundamentally human one?

6. What do you think of the queen's values as a reader, for example her insistence upon reading a book all the way through to the end, regardless her level of engagement? Surely most of us would put a book down if within fifty pages it proved to be a tedious waste of time. Have you ever attempted to discuss a book you haven't read?

7. Authors, the queen decides, were probably best met within the pages of their novels, left to the imagination like their characters. Have you met any famous writers? What were they like? Was your experience anything like the queen's?

8. The appeal of books, according to the queen, lay in their indifference: there is something undeferring about literature, she says. Books do not care who reads them or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included. Do you agree? Have you ever felt unequal to a book? Superior to one?

9. When the queen first meets the man in the book mobile, she refers to herself as a pensioner – this is clearly a joke. Talk about how Alan Bennett gives voice to the queen and draws humor from her. How had your feelings for this seemingly inaccessible figure changed by book's end?

10. Why is Norman fond of Cecil Beaton, David Hockney and J.R. Ackerley, what do these three people have in common, besides being British artists and writers?

11. Should our leaders spend more time engaged in the arts, particularly in reading literature (for what it's worth, Bill Clinton said he loved Walter Mosely)? What would be the effect?

12. When the queen begins to ask her subjects what they are reading, she is usually met with a shrug (or the Bible, or Harry Potter). Are people intimidated by reading, or are they just lazy and dim?

13. As the queen reads, she grows less interested in her royal duties, and even her appearance (the "permutations" of her wardrobe) goes into decline. Is she becoming more normal, more common? How has reading endangered her ability to carry out her role as a focus for British identity and unity? Isn't that role just a little too much for anyone to shoulder?

14. The queen finds that one book often lead to another; that doors opened wherever she turned ("the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do"). Has The Uncommon Reader opened doors for you? Has it inspired or emboldened you to try a book you've been putting off. Proust, perhaps?

15. At first the queen does not like Henry James's Portrait of a Lady ("oh, do get on!"), but she finds that reading is like a muscle that needs to be developed, and later she changes her mind about James. Have you ever had a similar experience, upon revisiting a challenging book? Would you consider reading The Uncommon Reader again, in order to glean further nuance from its pages?

Customer Reviews

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The Uncommon Reader 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 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.
mgaulding on LibraryThing 7 days ago
This was my first Alan Bennett book to read and I was absolutely astonished. I am a bit of a royal historian and the depiction of QEII in this novel, with her remarkable wit and her lese majesty, could easily be misconstrued as biography. This is a remarkable book with a very remarkable, unforgettable ending which includes King Edward VIII. I shall say no more. Like the movie, THE QUEEN, one ends this book with a healthier respect for the character QEII and the rest of her family and the little grey men that surround her look a bit daft. Read this book! It is, in my opinion, the ultimate paean to all things biblio. This a reader's book.
otterlake on LibraryThing 7 days ago
This was a short, cute book with plenty of winks to readers in the know.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing 7 days ago
This new novella from the pen of Alan Bennett (author of the The History Boys) is without a doubt the funniest book I have read in recent memory. I started it while riding home on the bus and had a hard time keeping my seat as my laughter was almost nonstop. What a wonderful premise! Imagine the Queen of England patronizing a lending library van, and then imagine her actually reading books. The incongruity of the situation leads to hilarious consequences for the Queen, her family, her household and her subjects. From the title, a not-too-subtle reference to Virginia Woolf, to the end this book I had a riot of uproariously fun reading. However, amidst all this fun there was a serious message about the nature, power and importance of reading: a subject that must be near and dear to the heart of the author and which all readers will continue to appreciate and wonder upon after the laughter has died away.
gooutsideandplay on LibraryThing 7 days ago
What fun! The Queen follows an errant corgi into a mobile library van parked on the palace grounds and just be polite, checks out a book. Subsequently, she begins to read widely and voraciously, and her world view is changed forever -- leading her to one momentous decision. However, her ministers and keepers are not amused and take steps to rein in their errant monarch.
1morechapter on LibraryThing 7 days ago
This novella traces the Queen of England¿s reading habits. She goes from being wholly ignorant of books and the literary life to being very knowledgeable and voracious in her reading-very much to the consternation of the Queen¿s and the Prime Minister¿s staff.I enjoyed this book tremendously not only because of my obvious love for the subject matter, but also because it was very humorous. I laughed out loud while reading several times. However, it does have (ever so few, but still) some content issues that just seemed wholly unnecessary to the storyline. It would have been a `4.5¿ otherwise.
crnfva on LibraryThing 7 days ago
What happens when the queen of england discovers book? Her path is not unknown to many readers. Books are companions, book open wolds, books are an obsession, sometime books are no good for social life. The kingdom is in distress: Elizabeth reads, and the protocol is shaking, the prime minister is asked questions he can't answer, and so do the people.But Elizabeth is always herself: she knows what to do, she know how to do it. I wonder if the queen read the book. Actually, i wonder if the queen reads!The book is lovable, and it's easy to identify with the protagonist. (Who didin't have a significat other, a family memeber, a friend who got impatient because one was reading instead of talking, or listening? Who wasn't accused of being a loner, a misanthrope, one who spoils other people's fun?)Obviously books are life of those who love them. And obviuosly Bennet loves them.
knittingfreak on LibraryThing 7 days ago
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett weighs in at a mere 120 pages; however, he packs this short little book with a lot of fun. The premise is simple. The (fictional?) Queen of England takes up reading one day quite by accident. She is chasing her barking dogs in her garden when she stumbles upon a bookmobile parked near the back of the castle. Once inside to retrieve her dogs, she feels compelled to check out a book. She has never been much of a reader to this point, but over time she becomes the type of reader we would all recognize in ourselves -- the obsessive kind. By page 19, she is already keeping a list of books that she wants to read. She begins with light fare and grows with her passion to include some of the more difficult books in the world of literature. Much to the dismay of those around her (especially her private secretary), this passion is fed by Norman, a page in her employ. One books leads to another and this one in turn leads to another. The Queen feels that all too familiar feeling that assails bibliophiles at times -- the overwhelming anxiety that one will never be able to read all the books on that reading list. She also begins to regret the many opportunities that have passed her by in life. After all, she's met nearly everyone of any importance whatsoever, including many famous authors. At the time, she didn't have anything to talk to them about because she hadn't read any of their books. Now, what she would give for an opportunity to sit down with some of these people to discuss their works. There are also some authors she would like to 'take to task.' She begins to exhibit even more symptoms of bibliophilia. See if you recognize any of these signs. She begins talking to everyone around her about what she's reading and begins giving people books to read. She begins to lose interest in everything else around her. Though usually punctual, she begins to be late for appointments. She begins to care less about her appearance. Sound familiar? I had to wince a little when reading this because I wondered just how many people had rolled their eyes when I talked passionately about a book I was reading or generously offered to let them borrow one of my many books.The Queen describes how she feels about reading when she says, "The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies...It [reading] was anonymous; it was shared; it was common." All this reading does make an impact on the Queen. She begins to notice things and people around her. She begins to think about things quite differently.This is a fun little novella and a must-read for anyone who cou
jennyo on LibraryThing 7 days ago
This delightful little novella is about what happens when the Queen of England develops an obsession with reading. It's funny, clever, and thoroughly entertaining. Here are just a few of the bookish quotes I marked: 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. And it occurred to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before. 'Books are wonderful, aren't they?' she said to the vice-chancellor, who concurred. 'At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,' she said, 'they tenderise one.' 'I would have thought,' said the prime minister, 'that Your Majesty was above literature.' 'Above literature?' said the Queen. 'Who is above literature? You might as well say one was above humanity.'
ros.peters on LibraryThing 7 days ago
The expectation of this novel did not live up to it's reality. The idea of the Queen of England discovering libraries and reading sounded like a great idea for a plot, but the novel became a bit too 'literary' and didactic that it became a chore to read. There was a positive message....reading is good for you...but it did not fall on any ears that count. The characters portrayed, both real and imagined, were deftly constructed. The ending too was unexpected and saved the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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