Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

"Above literature?" said the Queen. "Who is above literature? You might as well say one was above humanity."

This little book has a wonderful premise: one day, as the Queen is out rounding up her dogs, she stumbles upon the City of Westminster traveling library in her own backyard. To be polite, she takes out a book. The next week, when the library returns, she takes out another, again for politeness -- and one thing leads to another and Her Majesty becomes a voracious reader. Unfortunately, not everyone surrounding the Queen thinks this is a good thing... reading can lead to all sorts of trouble, you know.

The best words to describe this little gem are delightful, charming, very funny, and thoughtful. It is, of course, a celebration of reading and literature (and libraries!); it's also a meditation on aging, on loneliness, and on public faces versus private lives. It's tremendously uplifting and, as above, it's very subversively funny in a perfect dry way. I don't want to say too much more; there is a plot and it's best not to give too much away. Unlike my last read, don't be expecting heart-pounding action. This was a perfectly civilized read for a quiet rainy day.

All-in-all, the book is a little silly, with a hint of serious -- and sometimes quite cutting:

"The prime minister did not wholly believe in the past or in any lessons that might be drawn from it."

Zing! Just so you know, the prime minister is never named. One is given the impression that individual names don't so much matter in this case.

While Bennett's portrayal of those surrounding the Queen is often quite pointed, the way Her Majesty is portrayed is intensely sympathetic while still being firmly tongue-in-cheek. She comes across as both naive and incredibly wise, wiser as the book goes on. I liked this very much, as a note from Her Majesty's [fictional] notebook, because I thought it was very poignant:

"I was giving the CH once, I think it was to Anthony Powell, and we were discussing bad behaviour. Notably well behaved himself and even conventional, he remarked that being a writer didn't excuse one from being a human being. Whereas (one didn't say this) being Queen does. I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me."

It was Nymeth's review of this book that caught my eye, and I'm glad it did because I'm not sure I would have picked it up otherwise. So, thank you Nymeth! I'll be passing this one on.


Ana S. said...

You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I also loved the mix of humour and seriousness, and the occasional cutting remarks.

Unknown said...

I think the balance is what makes it so effective. I've already recommended this to four other people who I know will love it, and at least two of them will read it for sure... ;)

Shooting Stars Mag said...

I've heard some good things about this one. I keep forgetting about it though. I really really do want to check it out at some point. It sounds great. Nice review.


Unknown said...

Thanks Lauren! To be honest, I didn't remember it either until it came in across the library desk and I thought -- "Oh right. If I don't get that out now, I'm not sure I'll ever remember to." Something about the cover is very inconspicuous.