Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff, and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

I can't tell you how many times I've looked at this little book and thought "I should read this". It's a novella, so it's a nice length when looking for something that won't take a month or more to slog through. I like the British, and I'm fond of the royal family, so that was another plus in it's favor. And what's not to like about someone discovering the love of reading? Sadly, this title has shown up more than one in my pile of "should I weed this book or not?" pile. I'm very thankful that I never pulled it from our inventory in my little branch, and now that I've read it, I'm going to be recommending it quite often to patrons.

It's an interesting idea, the Queen borrowing books from the public library, and a "mobile library" to boot (what we call a bookmobile here in the States). I love that it was someone from her own kitchens that really introduces her to some great authors, proving that books are a great equalizer. If you can read, the whole world is at your fingertips, and a public library means that money is no obstacle to that world.

What I thought was interesting, and even kind of sad, was that the Queen always refers to herself as "one" - as in "one must not have opinions about what one is reading" or "one must, one supposes, take out a book". What must it be to go through life not thinking of yourself as "I" or "me" or even "insert-your-given-name-here". But as the Queen reads, you see a bit of that attitude changing, which is very interesting.

Some of this is humorous, although I'm not sure I'd call it laugh-out-loud funny. The staff trying to hide her books was good for a chuckle, as was the Queen becoming quite irked at having to go out to some function or other when all she really wanted to do was stay in and read. I get that, and I'm sure all you bibliophiles do, too. Perhaps the most interesting comment was a thought the Queen has after meeting several authors at a party she's put together. Even though she has enjoyed their books, she becomes quite tongue-tied and finds she can't really think of anything to say to these people who have opened up her world. Of course, not every author is nice or what she expects them to be like, resulting in this thought: "Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and as much creatures of the reader's imagination as the characters in their books."

A wonderful find, and one that is highly recommended by yours truly.

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