One likes to read

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett

This is a brilliantly funny, astute, thought-provoking book that is sadly small enough to read in one short sitting. I immediately added a whole bunch of Bennett books to my wishlist (any advice on which to read next appreciated).

The “uncommon reader” of the title is the Queen, who has never had much time for reading, but on bumping into a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace takes out a book, initially to be polite. Politeness turns to genuine interest, tempered by a keen awareness that she doesn’t know much about books besides having met most of their authors. So she promotes kitchen hand Norman, the library van’s only regular customer, to be her amanuensis and literary adviser. As her passion for reading grows, she becomes distracted from, and then bored by, her royal duties, and her staff conspire to cure her of this bad habit.

The first half of this book is acutely observed, laugh-out-loud funny, with the character of the Queen being charming, intelligent and completely believable. There is absolutely no doubt that this is Queen Elizabeth II and not some nameless dateless monarch. From the corgis to the extended family to the list of prime ministers she has worked with, this is undoubtedly our very own Queen. And Bennett has made her initially very likeable:

“‘Do you know,’ she said one evening as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’
‘No, ma’am?’
‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’
‘And I could do the pop,’ said Norman.
‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled.'”

In the second half of the book, the tone shifts a little. The emphasis is a little less overtly comedic and more seriously looks at how reading can change a person, both in perhaps obvious ways such as informing and widening horizons, and in less obvious ways – increased observation of details, reduced tolerance for the status quo, an appearance of being constantly distracted – that in some people might not be a problem, in fact might be welcomed, but in the Queen are seen as troublesome and even dangerous.

I was a little sad about the reduced comedy but still greatly entertained and impressed by how smartly Bennett envisaged this scenario and how various people might react. The denouement is fantastic, though I’ll admit it did change my mind about making this book the topic of any conversation I may ever get to have with the actual real-life Queen.

First published in 2006 in the London Review of Books.
Published as a book by Faber in 2007.