Books Magazine

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

By Booksnob


A dear friend of mine sent this to me as a surprise last week. I’ve had my eye on it for a while, and considering its length, I have no idea why I didn’t pick it up sooner. A mere slip of a thing, it’s a delightfully whimsical tale of how the Queen has her eyes opened to the joys of reading when she bumps into the Westminster Council library van at the back entrance to Buckingham Palace. Deciding to go inside, she considers it her duty to borrow a book. As she has never had the leisure time to read, she knows nothing of literature and picks at random; an Ivy Compton-Burnett. She’s warned that it won’t be an easy read, but once she has made a resolution, she sticks to it, and off she goes to read her very first library book. Thankfully, also in the library van that day is Norman, a kitchen boy who loves to read. Her Majesty enlists Norman’s help in navigating the world of books, and with his recommendations to guide her, she soon becomes a voracious reader, wandering off down all sorts of paths, from Nancy Mitford to Marcel Proust to Sylvia Plath. The more she reads, the more worlds open to her, and the life of duty she has never before thought to question begins to show itself in a new light. She starts to resent the relentless schedule of visits and functions, and her standards begin to slip as she makes it quite obvious to all and sundry that she’d rather be curled up with a book than opening Parliament. Could reading really trigger the downfall of the monarchy?!

This is both a wonderfully funny imagining of what life might be like behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace, complete with pushy jargon-speaking advisors who want to make the Queen ‘relevant’, and a truly insightful exploration of the importance of literature. The more the Queen reads, the more she becomes interested in the world around her. Instead of the usual small talk at formal dinners and meet and greets, she actually tries to engage with the people she is introduced to, asking them questions about their own reading habits. She begins to empathise with people as she is exposed to ways other people live their lives. She wants to become involved in the world, rather than always hovering above it; reading has shown her what she has missed in all of her years of sticking to the same patterns of thoughtless duty and safe conversation. However, not everyone approves of her new hobby; the vast majority of people she meets are confused and panic when the Queen asks them about their reading habits. Her Private Secretary tears his hair out at the Queen’s fanciful new way of looking at the world. The Prime Minister is not happy with the Queen trying to make him read books and questioning his policies. Reading is seen as an enemy at the gates; an insidious activity that is not to be trusted.

I loved Alan Bennett’s portrayal of how literature unlocks the soul and enables us to connect on a deeper level with the rest of humanity. His depiction of how depressingly unenthusiastic and distrusting many people are when it comes to reading is sadly true of my experience outside of literary circles. I think few of us readers realize that most people don’t read, and many of these non-readers consider people who do read to be wasting their time. Far too many of my students ask me ‘what’s the point of reading, Miss?’ – they have obviously never been encouraged to make the link between literature and the human heart. If more people did read, I think the world would be a more empathetic place. People would be able to step into others’ shoes more easily, and experience a wider range of viewpoints than they are otherwise exposed to. Perhaps there would be fewer wars, and less hatred spouted between people who have never bothered to try and understand the views of people whose beliefs differ from their own.

I will never forget a family I met when working in the local children’s library one university summer holiday; for religious reasons, the children were only allowed to read factual books, as their parents didn’t want them to be exposed to anything that opposed their beliefs. Deciding to risk the wrath of the mother (and being sacked!), I pressed a copy of Jane Eyre into the hands of the oldest girl and told her to give it a try. She read it under the covers at night and came into the library begging me for more. ‘I didn’t know other people felt like me,’ she said. At 13, it was her first experience of finding a kindred spirit. I may have been wrong in undermining her mother, but I don’t regret what I did. I can think of nothing crueller than denying a child the opportunity to enrich her world and develop her emotional intelligence through banning fiction. Who on earth would want to spend their life worshipping a God that advised turning out unthinking, unquestioning people with no knowledge of the human condition?!

I also loved how undiscriminating a reader the Queen was; her lack of knowledge of what is deemed ‘good’ literature means she is willing to try anything and everything, from celebrity biography to weighty European classics. Over time, as she develops her own tastes and can distinguish between quality and more prosaic prose, she begins to become more discerning in her choices. However, I was enchanted by her early enthusiasm and open minded attitude; I think I could do with adopting that a little more. I can’t see myself reading celebrity biographies any time soon, but I’d certainly like to experiment with some genres I never normally dabble in. We’ll see what I can do!

For an excessively slim and light hearted volume, The Uncommon Reader leaves you with much to ponder on. I enjoyed every minute, and I know I’ll come back to it time and time again. It has also made me want to read more Alan Bennett; any recommendations?

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