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The Uncommon Reader (thoughts)

May 1, 2008

The Novella ChallengeA review! For a challenge! It’s almost as if I’m a book blogger.;) To ease myself back into the swing of things, I thought I’d review my first read for the Novella Challenge: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

I’d seen this one mentioned around the blogosphere before, but it wasn’t until Ted mentioned that Bennett also wrote the play “The History Boys” (I saw the movie version and looooved it) that I was spurred to look it up in my library catalog. And guess what? The library had it. I was actually the first person to check it out (it’s a tiny library), and I just loved it. It’s a delicate, wonderful fable all about reading, and eventually writing.

The uncommon reader herself is Queen Elizabeth II, and the story is that she discovers the joy of books and gets more and more wrapped up in the world of reading (and consequently pays less attention to her duties). And as I read the book, while I revelled in the story, in the back of my mind I kept wondering “Why would Bennett pick the Queen?” Usually, I don’t worry too much about things like that, but it just wouldn’t leave me alone. And I’ve read some book bloggers who thought the whole premise was bizarre, because how could the someone like Queen Elizabeth not have already read great books? But actually, for those who haven’t read it, it isn’t that the Queen hasn’t read a book before; it’s that she suddenly discovers that magical, addicting joy that all book lovers know. But more on that later. First, I wanted to share why I think Bennett chose the Queen: because she’s the ultimate embodiment of duty. The prime minister even reflects on her “terrible sense of duty.” All of us readers know that books have a power to draw us into their worlds, and when we emerge, blinking, we tend to feel guilty that the laundry didn’t get put away, or or we didn’t make a five-course meal, or we put the bare minimum into some essay for school. This conflict, between the demands of books (and perhaps our souls?) and the outside world is at the heart of The Uncommon Reader, and the Queen was the best way to get that across. Read the following:

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.

Also, it allows Bennett to do things (like when the Queen holds a garden party for authors) to explore reading (in this instance, the Queen discovers it might be better to just know authors through their books, since in real life they’re a bit too…well….human) that he wouldn’t be able to do with a random Everyman. Not to mention, it’s a good marketing move! Flippancy aside, I really think it comes down to inner vs. outer life, and how books will change us if we give them even a little bit of a foothold.

If you love books and reading, it’d be very difficult for you to not enjoy this novella. Take the following passages:

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.

“Pass the time?” said the Queen. “Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one wishes one had more of it.”

“Can there be any great 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.”

Doesn’t that pretty much sum up your feelings about books? There were a couple other moments I especially liked. This one comes when the Queen is looking at the Proust she plans to read during her summer vacation; since I often think of books with food-like descriptions (I swear sometimes I salivate when I really want to read a book-was that too gross?), it was perfect for me.

And seeing the blue- and pink-jacketed volumes ranged along her desk, the Queen thought they looked almost edible and straight out of a patisserie window.

This one made me smile, considering the perennial discussion amongst book blogs re: abandoning books:

“Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.

And finally, here’s a passage that seems a propos of that study that only one in four Americans read a book last year (something like that-I don’t really remember):

“I feel, ma’am, that while not exactly elitist [reading] sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude,”
“Exclude? Surely most people can read?”
“They can read, ma’am, but I’m not sure that they do.”
“Then, Sir Kevin, I am setting them a good example.”

By now you should have a good idea of whether or not this is a book for you. I found it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and I’ll be searching out more of Bennett’s writing. What a great way to begin a challenge!

21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2008 7:43 pm

    Welcome back Eva.

    I think Bennett may be a little obsessed with the queen. He’s written quite a bit about her. I recommend “A Questions of Attribution” which is also ab out the queen.

    I’m tagging you. Find the details here…

    Please feel free to skip it if you have too much to do.

    But keep up the terrific posts.

  2. May 1, 2008 8:01 pm

    I had heard good things about this and your post just made me want to read it even more. Great selection of quotes! :)

  3. judg permalink
    May 1, 2008 8:13 pm

    “the Canadian minister for overseas trade”

    That should be the Minister of International Trade. *sigh* At least he didn’t capitalize it, so he can argue he was describing the function, not using the title. But still.

    I know, I’m being nasty and picky. But when an author gets easily verifiable details wrong, it throws me right out of the story. It could still be a fine book.

  4. May 1, 2008 8:57 pm

    This book looks so good. Had to agree with the part where she thinks books look as good as pastries.

    I’m so happy you’re back.

  5. May 1, 2008 9:51 pm

    Am I correct in thinking this is the book where a book has slipped between the seats in the Queen’s car and her guard tells her they will have to blow it up (in case it is a bomb disguised as a book, I guess?), and she protests because it is a favorite author of hers? I think I heard about it on NPR and LibraryThing. It sounds quite good as you describe it, I’ll have to add it to my wishlist.

  6. May 1, 2008 10:27 pm

    I just posted about this book, too. I also really enjoyed it. Love your quotes :) Bennett also wrote another play (and movie) I really enjoyed–The Madness of King George. Plus he wrote The Lady in the Van, a play about a homeless woman who parks her van in his yard–very funny!

  7. May 2, 2008 3:54 am

    I’ve sort of had this one in the back of my mind since hearing about it on NPR…but your review has me sold! Thanks Eva!

  8. May 2, 2008 5:27 am

    This one has been on my list for a while, but every review I read reminds me of my interest. I’ve been waiting to catch it at the library, but may have to give in and order it.

  9. May 2, 2008 6:51 am

    Eva! What a great reader you are! Based on your review and the one I found at gentle reader’s, I have no choice but to find An Uncommon Reader. The novella challenge sounds fun! What else will you be reading for it?

  10. May 2, 2008 8:32 am

    Oh, I loved this little book! It does sum up my feelings on reading rather nicely. I have to admit that I do often feel guilty about neglecting my ‘duties’ while reading. But, I’ve decided that life’s too short and there are too many books to let little things like cooking, cleaning, and working stand in the way.

  11. May 2, 2008 9:13 am

    Everything Bennett writes is stunning. Do try ‘The Lady in the Van’ which is based on a true person.

  12. May 2, 2008 10:40 am

    I kept hearing about this book but had absolutely no idea what it was about! It sounds excellent though! Thanks for the great review :) I’m adding it to the wishlist.

  13. May 2, 2008 11:48 am

    Excellent review, great insight. Glad you’re back! Is your readership count shot through the roof today? Thanks for coming by and say hello. :)

  14. May 2, 2008 1:05 pm

    C.B., that’s interesting! I’ll add that one to the TBR list. :) I’ve already done the meme, and I’ll publish it tomorrow.

    Em, thanks!

    Judg, I double-checked to make sure I hadn’t mistyped, but I can see how that would throw you out of the story. I think Bennett went with that, instead of the more official, capitalised title, because the whole book felt more like a fable/fairy tale than fiction from the realist school.

    Bybee, thanks! I loved that pastries quote too. :D

    Devourer, yep-this is the book! (That was a funny passage too)

    Gentle Reader, ohhh-I saw that movie forever ago and really liked it. I’ll have to put The Lady in the Van on my list as well. I think he might have new favourite author potential.

    Debi, your comment made an auction-monologue thing start running through my head, so now I’m giggling, hehe.

    Jenclair, my mom is buying a copy for one of my grandmothers for Mother’s Day. :D

    TJ, aww-thanks! I’m reading five other novellas (which are all listed on my ‘Current Challenges’ page)…let’s see if I can remember them without looking…”Oroonooko” (I might have put the wrong amount of ‘o’s in this one…it’s an older story of a slave), “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” “Gigi and the Cat,” “The Heart of Darkness,” and a Marquez one that I haven’t decided on yet (my library has a 3-in-1 novella collection of his).

    Lisa, I read while I cook! Sometimes this leads to dirty books, but not very often, hehe. I must admit…I often read when I should be cleaning.

    Ann, I will! Thanks for the rec!

    Chris, now you know. :) I think you’ll enjoy this one!

    Care, thanks! It’s definitely doubled today, which is nice. :D

  15. May 4, 2008 5:36 am

    I loved this book too — it’s more about reading itself than it is about the Queen. I liked your explanation, though, of why he picked the Queen — what a perfect personal to help him make his point that reading is so very pleasurable!

  16. July 5, 2008 8:59 am

    Just finished this one myself and really enjoyed it, Bennett is such a cracking writer I never doubted I’d like it though.

  17. July 30, 2009 6:13 am

    Clearly I need to read “The Uncommon Reader” soon.


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