The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

No secret that I love the Royal Family. And I love stories about books. Stands to reason then, that Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader was a smashing success for me.

The story is simple – late in Her Majesty’s life, she discovers a love for reading. This new hobby is somewhat annoying for her staff because she’d rather be reading than cutting ribbons/ giving speeches/ opening buildings.

…she had begun to perform her duties with a perceived reluctance: she laid foundation stones with less élan and what few ships there were to launch she sent down the slipway with no more ceremony than a toy boat on a pond, her book always waiting.

Furthermore, instead of small-talk about the weather, the Queen starts asking people what they are reading – which can put one on the spot…

There were many who hoped for a similar meeting of minds by saying they were reading Harry Potter, but to this the Queen (who had no time for fantasy) invariably said briskly, ‘Yes. One is saving that for a rainy day,’ and passed swiftly on.

Apart from the dozens of delightful quotes about reading (see some of my favourites below), Bennett’s wit is razor-sharp and it’s hard not to love Betty the Reader to bits.

…it came to her that for some reason Norman was sulking, behaviour she had seldom come across except in children and the occasional cabinet minister.

4/5 Jolly wonderful.

The Queen, on reading (according to Bennett) –

What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

‘Of course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. 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.’

…was anonymous; it was shared; it was common,’ she thinks. ‘And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized.’

‘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 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, herself included… Books did not defer.

There was sadness to her reading, too, and for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed.

She was not a gentle reader and often wished authors were around so that she could take them to task. ‘Am I alone,’ she wrote, ‘in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?’

But later says – “…becoming reconciled even to Henry James, whose divagations she now took in her stride: ‘After all,’ as she wrote in her notebook, ‘novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies.’

‘Can there be any greater pleasure,’ she confided in her neighbour, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, ‘than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen?’ And all, though she did not say this, in paperback and so handbag size.

…reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed.

You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there.

‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice-chancellor, who concurred. ‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one.’

For those interested, here’s a list of the authors referred to in The Uncommon Reader (and specific titles if included) –

Jean Genet
Cecil Beaton
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Nancy Mitford (The Pursuit of Love; Love in a Cold Climate)
J.R. Ackerley (My Dog Tulip)
E.M. Forster
John Masefield
Walter de la Mare
T.S. Eliot
Philip Larkin
Ted Hughes
Robert Frost
Anita Brookner
Ian McEwan
A.S. Byatt
Dylan Thomas
John Cowper Powys
Jan Morris
Francis Kilvert
Lewis Carroll
Andy McNab
Joanna Trollope
Virginia Woolf
Charles Dickens
J.K. Rowling
Vikram Seth
Salman Rushdie
Sylvia Plath
Lauren Bacall
Henry James
William Makepeace Thackeray
George Eliot
The Brontës
Thomas Hardy
Marcel Proust
Samuel Pepys
Rose Tremain
Kazuo Ishiguro
Samuel Beckett
Vladimir Nabokov
Philip Roth
Mary Renault
Denton Welch
Honoré de Balzac
Ivan Turgenev
Joseph Conrad
Henry Fielding
Jane Austen
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Anthony Trollope
Dick Francis
Jonathan Swift
Emily Dickinson
Queen Victoria (Leaves from a Highland Journal)
Duke of Windsor (A King’s Story)

17 responses

    • His sense of humour is wicked. I was laughing out loud at so many bits. I mostly loved how the Queen thought all the non-readers (mostly her advisors) were nincompoops.

    • Haha!

      For the record Bill, I listened to this as an audio (plus I have a hard copy so I was toggling between them often to mark quotes!) – but the audio version is read by Bennett himself and he does a marvellous job. Well worth a listen if you can track it down (and very short – about three hours I think).

  1. I’m not a royalist by any stretch, but I adore Alan Bennett and this does sound wonderful. I agreed with so many of the quotes, it’s a must read (although I’m yet to reconcile myself to Henry James) 🙂

  2. me and Madge would clearly hit it off since I too feel the need to give Henry James a good shaking, especially when he has just taken a page and a half to describe someone opening an umbrella

  3. I read this book several years ago and found myself laughing through most of it. I recommended it to my book club and some of the other gals found it more annoying than funny. There is no accounting for some people’s taste in books. Ha!

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