The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Prince-Charles-reading-to-Mummy-Queen-Elizabeth-at-home

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 realise 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?

57 comments

  1. First off – what a great post! You’ve really got me thinking about what reading means to me, so thank you!πŸ™‚

    This book is one that I’ve been meaning to read myself, I’m thinking it may be my next read now after your entertaining review. I definitely agree on the importance of literature in developing empathy; the ability to think critically about why people act the way they do and enveloping yourself in the world of others underlines, for me, the joy of books. If only more people read fiction more frequently, I think the world would be a more sympathetic place.

    1. Thanks Lorraine, glad you enjoyed it!πŸ™‚

      Oh please do make it your next read – it’s so short that it literally takes an hour to read, so there’s no excuse not to give it a go!

      I’m glad you agree. It always amazes me how few people read, and how lowly reading is held in esteem by the general public. What could be more pleasurable? What else could open so many doors?!

      1. I was going to say the same thing. If you loved this, try The lady in the van too. Of course, The uncommon reader is special because it’s about reading, but both are about character and told with Bennet’s sly, witty eye.

  2. I loved this book when I read it. I was lucky enough to hear Alan Bennett read from it at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago, which was magical. I like Alan Bennett monologues – talking heads (the tv version of which transfixed me as a teenager) and talking tales, which the author reads himself.

  3. This book is one of my all time faves and I have hand-sold literally 100s of copies. I can’t believe I did not force it on you when you were in NYC! Read anything by Bennett. It’s hard to go wrong.

  4. I enjoyed this novel so much – made me pause to think about how the Queen has to be so removed from the public. The author portrays a somewhat lonely life. I agree with Lorraine regarding the importance of literature, so I don’t need to go into my “lecture!” (Maybe she is/was an English teacher like me!) Honestly, I think anyone who is a Jane fan believes in these same principles.

    1. Yes indeed – but at the same time, I don’t see how it can be any different. She has never experienced a ‘normal’ life and cannot relate to the struggles experienced by her ‘subjects’. I can’t imagine her having a chat about how the price of teabags has gone up! I think so too – I am preaching to the converted on this site, at least!

  5. I loved this book when I read it a few years ago. Thanks for bringing to mind; I’ll have to find it and read it again. I enjoy your blog so much.

  6. How brave of you to broaden this girl’s mind by suggesting “Jane Eyre”. I will never forget our school librarian who recommended the Bronte sisters to me and even lent me some of their books and a biography from her private shelves. It’s our responsibility as adults to show the younger ones parts of the world we know, isn’t it?
    I enjoyed what you said about the impact of reading!

    1. I think it was probably more reckless than brave, but I certainly don’t regret it! How lovely of your school librarian. It is our responsibility, yes – I couldn’t agree more! I am glad you agree!πŸ™‚

  7. The best thing in the book was the revelation that the last ABC was a Strictly fan. It had the ring of truth. One of course hopes that his successor also likes to tune in and sit in rapt attention, perhaps clutching his crozier for emotional support.

  8. I concur with all those who recommended other works by Alan Bennett. The Uncommon Reader is fantastic (and is available on a podcast with the author reading it, and since he is also a bit of a theatre man, he does it very well, as one of your commentators already mentioned). This is one of a series of short stories or novellas that he has published first in the pages of the London Review of Books,and that were then printed as small books, or in some cases with two stories to a book. These include the already mentioned Lady in the Van (also a play in which he played himself); Father, Father, Burrning Bright is a funny but wistful story of the death fo the narrator’s father; The Clothes They Stood Up In is an absurd story of a family who are robbed of all the contents of their house; The Laying on of Hands is a hilarious account of the behaviour of an odd assortment of people who attend the funeral of a young male prostitute. And of course most people know his stories that became plays and/or films: The Madness of King George, and the History Boys. His memoir A Life Like Other People’s (2009) is also very interseting.

  9. Your story of introducing the 13 year old to Jane Eyre reminds me of a lovely book entitled “Hadassa” by Myriam Beaudoin, a Quebec francophone writer (the book has been published in English translation). It’s based on the author’s experience in her first job, as French teacher at an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in Montreal. The school strictly censored the books she used to teach from, even to the point of blacking out any mention of body parts (any body parts!). But she introduces them to some clandestine literature – like the Smurf comic books! And one day she gets a complaint from the parents that the girls, on their way home from school, stopped off in a …. bookstore! and were found sitting on the floor reading!

  10. You must read the memoirs Writing Home and also The lady in the van They are my all time favourites and even better listen to him on cd reading his diaries. He is a wonderful person to listen to. Enjoy Enjoy

  11. I, too, loved this book and am watching the comments to see what other titles your readers recommend since it was the only Bennett I’ve read so far. Thanks for the great review!

  12. A great post! I have never read anything by Alan Bennett but you have convinced me to give him a go. I have just ordered the Uncommon Reader from Amazon, it’s winging it’s way to me as I type.

  13. Thank you for this post – the book sounds so great I am going to purchase it this very minute! (Like several others – you will have caused a sales surge.)

  14. Funny – I just finished this book last week and loved every minute also! I was very intrigued by the Queen’s choices and amused by all the trouble her reading caused. I love books about books-I want to read my way through all the suggestions!

    1. We are obviously connected, Lori! So pleased to hear that! Yes, I think my TBR list has grown massively from all these wonderful recommendations – I’m looking forward to ploughing through them!

  15. I quickly read this post on the way to what I knew would be a busy & slightly stressful day ahead & it immediately calmed me. Our copy is one of our ‘loo books’. Reading this makes me think I should sit & read it more often.

      1. FYI – this was on my Amazon Wish List from last year, and appeared this year on Christmas morning all tied up with a pretty bow. Downed it like a lost soul in the desert, Rachel, and loved every word, laughing out loud at points, much to the giver (Tom’s) delight.

  16. What a fantastic post, and on one of my favourite writers! I have to day it is most thought provoking reading this post and it really makes you think about the importance of reading, just how crucial it is to our existence. It saddens me that some people just don’t read at all. Ah well, luckily I do and this is a book I shall be procuring as soon as possible. We definitely are twins separated at birth – Alan Bennett is one of my all time heroes – up there with Betjeman!

  17. I had liked and enjoyed Jane Brocket since stumbling upon her blog several years ago
    and am delighted that she led me to your fascinating writings. My like of Jane turned to love when I read the following in her charming book ‘The Gentle Art of Domesticity’… under the title seven comforts she says… ” If I could, I would choose the author and playwright Alan Bennett
    to be my household god. His shrine … would be in the linen cupboard, and I would bring him out whenever I needed him.”
    It would be difficult to not enjoy any book by Mr.Bennett.

    1. Hi Deby, thanks for coming over and it’s lovely to meet you! I had forgotten Jane had written about Alan Bennett…even more proof that he is magnificent!

  18. What a lovely post! I loved this book and recommend it to everyone. And I loved your story about giving Jane Eyre to a young reader — how wonderful that you shared it with her, but it’s so sad that you had to be sneaky about it.

    I recently helped with library outreach at a local high school with a religious affiliation, and between presentations, I poked around the shelves at the tiny library. They did have fiction but the selection was small and some of the books were so old, and the nonfiction collection was just dismal — the books about religion outnumbered the science books by at least double (and not a single book about dinosaurs in sight!). It makes me sad when I hear about children’s reading being censored, especially something as classic as Jane Eyre.

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