The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
One day the Queen encounters, by chance, a mobile library parked by
Buckingham Palace. A few members of the staff rely on this outreach
program, but a visit by royalty is a rare and unexpected event. The Queen
feels that she should check out a book to show her support. But the Queen
doesn’t know much about books. What should she do?
Thus begins Alan Bennett’s clever and entertaining story The Uncommon
Reader. Bennett is best known for his dramatic works, and has also written
for television and recently published a memoir, Untold Stories, which was a
bestseller in the UK. But Bennett is also a brilliant author of fiction, as
demonstrated by this charming account of a monarch coming to grips with
that ultimate democratizing force, the written word.
The Queen decides to read the book she has borrowed. After all, the Queen
is always focused on duty and decorum, and returning it unread would seem
rather irresponsible, no? But this one book leads to others, and they open
up more doors, and before long, she is the leading reader in the land. Why?
After a lifetime of being insulated and protected from the flow and flux and
unpredictability of real life, she has finally found a way of bypassing, at least
through books, all these barriers and finding out what really happens in the
The Queen has a companion in her literary adventures, a low-level kitchen
worker at the palace named Norman. Norman also loves books, but has a
strong preference for the works of homosexual authors. Through his
guidance, the Queen is soon checking out J.R. Ackerley, E.M Forster, Marcel
Proust and a host of other writers that she might otherwise have missed.
When she meets the President of France, she asks about Genet, rather than
inquire into the details of Anglo-French monetary arrangements.
The Queen’s staff and handlers are concerned about this new obsession,
which seems a little selfish and elitist. A battle breaks out behind the scenes,
with everyone from the Prime Minister to the lowest servants involved in the
resulting fray. Bennett is especially good at probing the subtle ways in which
reading a book can cause irritation and an unexpected backlash. Any book
lover who has encountered hostility from family and friends aimed at this
seemingly harmless pastime will appreciate these pages.
But can all this end happily? What if the Queen decides that reading books is
all good fun, but it might even be better to write one? Certainly this cannot
bode well for her hangers-on? Bennett pulls it all together in the end, and
concludes The Uncommon Reader with a sly, surprise ending that admirably
caps a top-notch tale.
This review originally appeared on Blogcritics