The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Hardcover published 2007.
So far I haven’t written about any books that I haven’t had for sale. This will be the first.
Recently I spent a few days in Melbourne and stayed at my good friend Paul Perry’s place, which is also his secondhand bookshop (All Sorts Books, Northcote). I’m a creature of habit and one thing I find very important, is to read for a few minutes before I go to sleep at night. I’m sure a few of you out there will agree with me that this is a great way to end the day. In this instance I had forgotten to bring something to read with me… no problem… I’m staying at a bookshop, Paul will surely have something, preferably short, for me to read. His recommendation “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett.
So I look at the book that Paul has pressed into my hand and quickly skim the blurb. This book is about the Queen. The Queen of England. You know the one… Elizabeth, married to Phil the Greek. My doubts about this book must have been pretty obvious to Paul. I think I might have even tried to hand it back, but he insisted that it would be a good read. Well OK. I thought I’d give it a go.
I believe in Australia becoming a republic and removing Her Majesty as our head of state… and from our coins… I just thought I’d mention this now as what I’m about to write does not come easily to me.
This book is possibly one of the nicest books I’ve read in a long time. It is charming in the best tradition of charming and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. I could barely put it down.
A quick summary:
The Queen enters a mobile library bus (?) and apologises for the Corgis making too much noise. She meets the librarian and one of the palace kitchen hands and decides to borrow a book to be friendly. She reads the book and returns the book… next thing you know the kitchen hand is her literary assistant (amanuensis) and she’s reading more books than ever before, developing a passion that causes some of those around her to become concerned. Some more stuff happens including some palace politics and the book ends.
What I liked was the humanness of the Queen character. To me, here in Australia and as a non believer, the Queen (the real Queen, not Alan Bennett’s Queen) seems to be very distant and out of touch. In this book she’s seems very real and genuine, to write about her in this way is amazing and at times it was quite shocking. Bennett seems to have figured out how to turn this distant, aloof person into a very real person… don’t get me wrong, this is a work of fiction but there is enough of the perceived real her majesty in there to make it very clear who this character is.
But all this stuff about the Queen isn’t the only reason I enjoyed this book. (Here comes the interesting bit.) Over the years my own reading has developed in a way that I like to compare to a tree. I read something and then branch off to related reading matter… this doesn’t always happen and sometimes the branching off is delayed, but often I begin reading books by known associates, or books that have influenced, or been influenced by other books, or similar subjects or read more of the same writer etc etc. I use the tree analogy as sometimes you end up somewhere along way from where you started and sometimes it’s a dead end and you go back a few twigs, branches or all the way to the trunk… I feel the same way about music. This is basically the premise of The Uncommon Reader. The Queen’s development and understanding of literature is portrayed in a very believable manner. She doesn’t like everything she reads and sometimes her direction ends abruptly, but with some writers we see her continue on particular threads/branches… don’t get me wrong, a lot of what this character reads is not to my personal taste and indeed I would describe her reading as fairly conservative, but we are talking about a woman in her 80s and it is a work of fiction about someone reading books and not about the books she reads. Bennett deliberately skims over, but still manages to touch upon the Queen’s impressions of her literary choices. It’s not important to know exactly what she thinks about what she's reading, although there is a brief and excellent explanation as to why she doesn’t find Jane Austen that great.
This book is about the joys of discovery and I guess that in some way i identify with the Queen… this sounds weird, I know… but don’t worry, I wont be wearing my tiara in public and there will be no corgis (unless it's an interesting title).
(If your interested in buying this book go see Paul Perry at All Sorts, 275 High Street Northcote and tell him Huc & Gabet sent you.)