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Book review: “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

Reading the last line of Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader,” I laughed out loud.

I can’t guarantee you will, but I suspect you will find this short 2007 novel funny and surprisingly thoughtful.

It’s about Queen Elizabeth II stumbling into a deep passion for books, particularly novels. And about how this new avocation brings into her life a sudden flood of other voices, experiences and perspectives that change her radically.

After a long life of dutifully going through the motions — which, when you get down to it, in this age when royals wield no real power, is what the Queen and her family spend their lives doing — she begins thinking.

Indeed, the Queen realizes, with regret, that, throughout her many years, she has met many literary figures but uniformly failed to take advantage of their acquaintance since she hadn’t read any of their works.

“But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?” says Sir Kevin, her personal secretary, a supercilious New Zealander.

“Of course, but briefing is not reading,” she responds. “In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”

In putting those words into the Queen’s mouth, Bennett, a well-known British playwright, is speaking for all readers. Those of us who read books — as opposed to the rest of the population which avoids them — know the delight and uncertainty of opening a new work and entering into its new world.

Although the Queen doesn’t read much non-fiction, my experience in reading history, biography and other fact-based volumes is that they provide the same opening-up as a novel. There’s a triangulation going on here — the reader, the writer and the subject.

Even if I read twenty books about Abraham Lincoln, each one is a new world because each has a different writer. Even when the same writer approaches the same subject in two different books — such as David Herbert Donald’s several books on Lincoln — each is a new world because the writer has subtly changed in the interim between books and anyway takes a different tack on the subject.

The Queen’s reading irks her staff. She’s preoccupied with whatever book she’s reading. She’s less worried about what she wears. She starts showing up late for events, not wanting to leave her book without finishing the chapter or page she’s on.

“I can understand,” says Sir Kevin, “Your Majesty’s need to pass the time.”

“Pass the time?” she replies. “Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time 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.”

The Queen, because she is the Queen, gets the bright idea to make up for lost time by bringing together as many of writers as she can for a soiree.

But it falls very flat.

“Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met with in the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books. Nor did they seem to think one had done them a kindness by reading their writings. Rather they had done one a kindness by writing them.”

Again, Bennett is putting thoughts into the Queen’s head that many people who have met writers — who tend to be shy, tongue-tied, introspective and a bit selfish — have also considered.

This is more of a problem with novelists. Non-fiction writers often double as teachers or professors, and have developed a public persona that’s at least somewhat sociable.

Toward the end of the novel’s 20,000 or so words, the Queen has become so opened-up by reading that she begins to question reading.

“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 all 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.”

How the Queen resolves that conundrum causes a sudden and high degree of anxiety for the Prime Minister and leads directly to the final sentence that made me laugh out loud.

On second thought, I bet you’ll laugh too.

Patrick T. Reardon

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