21 July 2010

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

What a neat little book about reading! I spotted this on a table of specials at a bookstore in England.
A quick glance through it and I knew I had to read it.

At the beginning of the book the Queen and her annoying little barking Corgis have set out for a walk and happen upon the City of Westminster traveling library by mistake. She had never seen the traveling library on-site before. She decided to step inside and apologize for her dogs' rudeness and ended up borrowing a book simply out of kindness to the driver/librarian.

The queen ends up falling in love with the act of reading and appoints for herself an amanuensis. (amanuensis: to run errands, exchange her library books, look up awkward words for her and find her quotations...the true meaning of the word is manual laborer; someone to do things by hand. Now the word is often used to mean a secretary or scribe.)

Eventually the queen finds herself reading while traveling and not minding the actual travel anymore. However, she finds all her engagements as bothers now because her book is pulled from her, and hidden, so that she must focus on the event at hand. What a bother. She often has 2 or 3 books going at once. Those around her, excepting her amanuensis, are increasingly annoyed by the amount of time she is spending reading and hence this incredible sentence in the book:

"Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of sinility."

Reading continues to transform her. Eventually she feels that all the authors she has read have had "a voice" but that she, even as Queen, truly has no voice; no freedom. That brings on the surprising little twist at the end of the book! I was very happy with the way the author chose to end (or begin, depends on how one looks at it) his story. If you love to read I believe you'll enjoy this quick little treasure.

I found that I wanted to highlight sections of this book as I read it. I am going to give a few of those examples here:

"Pass the time?" said the Queen. "Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand." (Sir Kevin is from New Zealand and is embarrassed by the fact.)

"The appeal of reading , she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. ... All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night, when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognized with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in thses pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized." (I find myself wishing to know if, indeed Queen Elizabeth and her sister were allowed to mingle with the celebrating crowds on VE night...I read in another book recently that they actually experienced the same rations as the commoners. Then I read another quotation which said they experienced no sacrifices. I find that very interesting.)

"These doubts and self-questionings, though, were just the beginning. Once she got into her stride it ceased to seem strange to her that she wanted to read, and books, to which she had taken so cautionsly, gradually came to be her element."

"Had she been asked if reading had enriched her life she would have had to say yes, undoubtedly, though adding with equal certainty that it had at the same time drained her life of purpose. Once she had been a self-assured single-minded woman knowing where her duty lay and intent on doing it for as long as she was able. Now all too often she was in two minds. Reading was not doing, that had always been the trouble. And old though she was she was still a doer."

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


  1. You're off to a good start Ang. Give it some time and you should have a great following of Bibliovores. This book sounds great as does the Zukas one. Two more for my list!


  2. Great choice for one of your first reviews! I loved this book, and must re-read it. It amuses me that this is now where a lot of people have heard of Ivy Compton-Burnett. ICB is the first author the Queen tries, and is one of my favourite authors - and a lot of people's least favourite!!

  3. Simon, I have decided to aquire a copy of Sisters and Brothers to try out some ICB!


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