Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

I’m sure most of you will have heard of this charming little book already. I certainly had – so many times and from so many sources that I doubt I’d have written about it at all, if a review copy hadn’t mysteriously ended up in my letterbox. I shrugged the mystery away, opened the book out of curiosity, and all of a sudden realised that an hour had passed and the book was finished. And for such a light, quick read, The Uncommon Reader left me with surprisingly much to think about.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the ‘uncommon reader’ of the title is none other than Her Majesty the Queen. I think it’s something of an accepted truism – true or not – that Queen Elizabeth isn’t much of a reader. In The Uncommon Reader this is because ‘reading is not doing': duty is duty, and reading for pleasure is an indulgence the Queen cannot afford. But one fine day she follows her misbehaving corgis and wanders into a mobile library. Thinking that checking out a book is the polite thing to do, she chooses an Ivy Compton-Burnett from the shelf. She doesn’t enjoy it overmuch, but when she goes back to return the book, she is directed towards The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, and that one does the trick: she’s hooked. With the aid of a gay kitchen boy called Norman, who’s promoted to the Queen’s personal page and affectionately called her ‘amanuensis’, she embarks on a quest to read anything and everything. Nobody else quite understands her new passion, and some – like the Prime Minister and the Queen’s pompous private secretary Sir Kevin – positively deplore it. Like any obsession, bibliophilia has its comic aspects – and in this book, these include a volume of Anita Brookner being exploded as a suspected bomb.

What I liked best about this novella was that the Queen is just like Woolf’s ideal ‘common reader’ – she goes from book to book, and subject matter to subject matter, as her fancy takes her. (‘What she was finding also was that 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.’) The message is not necessarily that all books are made equal, but that all books can be read for pleasure: she begins with Nancy Mitford and ends up a Proust enthusiast; she doesn’t much care for Sylvia Plath, but enjoys Lauren Bacall’s memoirs. Reading is democratic, realises the Queen – and most of all, it’s a great adventure:

That the Queen could readily switch from showbiz autobiography to the last days of a suicidal poet might seem both incongruous and wanting in perception. But, certainly in her early days, to her all books were the same and, as with her subjects, she felt a duty to approach them without prejudice. For her, there was no such thing as an improving book. Books were uncharted country and, to begin with at any rate, she made no distinction between them. With time came discrimination, but apart from the occasional word from Norman, nobody told her what to read, and what not. Lauren Bacall, Winifred Holtby, Sylvia Plath – who were they? Only by reading could she find out.

Later, as her taste develops, the Queen comes to enjoy Compton-Burnett as well, and ‘uncommon’ though she is, as a reader she’s a self-taught everywoman. Her missed opportunities may be out of the ordinary – ‘As a child she had met Masefield and Walter de la Mare; nothing much she could have said to them, but she had met T.S. Eliot, too, and there was Priestley and Philip Larkin and even Ted Hughes, to whom she’d taken a bit of a shine but who remained nonplussed in her presence’ – but the essence of her story could be anybody’s, a story of aging, time wasted, and realising you’ve got a lot of catching up to do with life.

‘The Queen’ is bound to be more of a shorthand than a character, and as such she serves Bennett’s purposes very well – though Bennett’s purposes also serve the myth of the Queen as, bizarrely, one finishes the book with more respect and affection for the real one. (What I’d really like to know is whether she ever reads fictional versions of herself. That must be a bewildering experience.) That said, this book is more about books than about the Queen; a celebration of reading rather than a celebration of the monarch. Bennett doesn’t make easy judgments about different kinds of reading being superior to others, but whether or not he shares the sentiment The Uncommon Reader does pander to what seems to be a fantasy common to most booklovers: that people who don’t read for pleasure, and read voraciously at that, are somehow lacking. That they cannot be truly, thoroughly aware of themselves and the people around them. That they have less sensibility than their bibliophile neighbours; less humanity. The Uncommon Reader does take a humorous look at the ways in which a bookish obsession interferes with everyday life and relationships, and the reader can laugh knowingly when the Queen tries to read a hidden book during a boring state function and grows increasingly impatient with interruptions to her bookish pursuits. Readers can be selfish, yes – but it is never in doubt that this is a good, enriching sort of selfishness, and throughout it all runs the thread of self-congratulation shared by most readers (including me). A person who reads is always either better or more fortunate than a person who doesn’t. A person who reads for pleasure, voraciously, even obsessively, is always in possession of some wonderful secret knowledge that others aren’t (and it never goes the other way round). Poor anti-intellectual Sir Kevin, who seems to think that briefing is as good as reading – such tragic narrow-mindedness!

Whether or not the real Queen reads for pleasure, one has to wonder if it would really have taken someone like her – and someone with her obvious strength of character – eighty years to ‘discover herself’, and if that kind of a self-discovery could only be reached through books. Is a life without book-learning truly a life wasted? Would someone in the Queen’s position, with all her experience, really think so? Would someone not in the Queen’s position think so? I’ve always been puzzled by my grandfather, who would have sudden enthusiasms for this subject or that, borrow a stack of books from the library, and then abandon reading altogether for years, without any obvious withdrawal symptoms. Or my father, who used to love Jules Verne and the Hornblower books as a lad, but hasn’t touched a book as long as I can remember, and doesn’t seem to be missing anything. Such an attitude is completely foreign to a lover of books. Much as the thought pains me, I can understand that people often watch Wimbledon with a degree of pleasure and then forget about tennis for the rest of the year. Why, then, is it so hard to accept reading as something most people can take or leave? 

The fictional Queen would probably know to anticipate these prejudices from her readers:

‘Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book, as it were, closes the book.’

Final Verdict: Short, quite light, but charming – no doubt especially so to other booklovers. Though the book did leave me yearning to find out about the real Queen’s reading habits. If anybody here should meet her, could you please ask?

Faber & Faber/Profile Books  2008  paperback  121 pp.  ISBN: 9781846681332

13 comments on “Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

  1. Jackie
    June 30, 2008

    Another good review, Leena and you have given me lots of food for thought about reading vs. non-reading. I must admit to all the smug, enlightened feelings you describe. I wonder if the author also meant reading to be a metaphor for other things people pass by in life & realize it too late?
    Are the corgis featured a lot in this book? And haven’t I heard that the Queen considered Dick Francis her favorite author? Was that referred to?
    I wanted to read this one before & now you’ve made me more eager.

  2. Leena
    June 30, 2008

    Oh yes, I’m sure the reading was also meant to be a metaphor for lost opportunities in general – or at least it worked as such.

    Can’t remember if Dick Francis was mentioned, but I’ve heard that too, about the Queen. And the corgis do maul some library books in this one, if I remember correctly ;)

    (What about the dorgies, though? Everyone always talks about the corgis, but the Queen has dachshund-corgi crossbreeds as well. Not fair on the poor dorgies. I’m sure they’re equally fond of library books, really.)

  3. Anne
    June 30, 2008

    I’m not so sure about this. I think it’s a little twee, no? Somewhat overly whimsical? Did anyone else feel this way?

  4. Jackie
    July 1, 2008

    I didn’t know about the dorgies. I must Goggle them to see what they look like, I bet they’re cute.

  5. Jackie
    July 1, 2008

    Google, not goggle. lol

  6. Moira
    July 1, 2008

    I haven’t read it Anne, but Alan Bennett doesn’t normally run to twee. Even when he’s being surface whimsical, the little steel trap that is his brain can usually be relied on to glint occasionally. I’d be surprised if The Uncommon Reader wasn’t underdrawn with just a little acid.

    Leena?

  7. Leena
    July 1, 2008

    Weeeeell… it is a little bit twee, perhaps – or at least the premise itself is very twee, so the book is always hovering on the edge of twee, somehow. But Moira’s right that there’s some acid underneath. And I think there is, oddly enough, a certain down-to-earth-ness and restraint about the whole book so that it doesn’t come across as consciously ‘quirky’. The most whimsical episodes – like the exploding Anita Brookner – tend to be the most low-key ones.

    Jackie, here’s the Queen with a dorgi, so goggle ahead: http://www.hellomagazine.com/celebrities/specials/celebritypets/fotos/thequeen1b.jpg It looks a lot like a dachshund to me, but a bit stockier. (Could be he’s just fat, though ;) )

  8. Trilby
    July 1, 2008

    I read this when it first ran in the LRB last year – like you, Leena, I was utterly captivated. Alan Bennett has such a great ear for irony (if that’s anatomically possible!) and his work always seems to tread the line between the painfully clever and the touchingly sentimental with fine grace.

  9. marygm
    July 1, 2008

    I’m not sure the concept of this would appeal to me normally but given this high recommendation, Leena…
    I think I see excessive reading as a vice rather than a virtue but I am a sinner myself. I get very edgy – like a drug addict in short supply – if I don’t have at least 4 unread books to choose from.

  10. Lisa
    July 3, 2008

    Excellent review, Leena. Do you know how long I’ve spent scouring the internet for more pictures of dorgies? Too long.

    Is there any legal difficulty in writing a novel about the Queen? I don’t suppose she would object, unless the book had the Queen as a secret dominatrix or something, in which case…

    I don’t think this one is for me, but I know a reader who’ll love it, so thanks for helping me find a suitable birthday present for a difficult-to-buy-for relative :)

  11. Jackie
    July 4, 2008

    That dorgie is cute! I do think it’s a bit overweight, but that just adds to the cuddle factor. It’s fascinating to see how it combines traits of both breeds. Thanks for finding the pic, Leena.
    Mary, I completely understand the edginess and agree that 4 unread books is the absolute minimum. I’m not sure if I consider reading addiction a bad thing, though I suppose any habit that is beyond control is probably not beneficial.

  12. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "amanuensis" - JabberTags

  13. Pingback: Interview with novelist and Virginia Woolf expert, Susan Sellers + Giveaway « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2008 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: general and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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