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.
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