“The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett (2007)

What a lovely read! I was at a bookstore a couple of weeks ago and just looking through the fiction isle checking out the offerings. I already keep a list of the books I want to read and the authors I enjoy, but can never help myself when I’m in an actual book-selling establishment. I was strolling when I came across this novella. I had read Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys (I’ve never seen it performed nor its movie adaptation) and quite liked his brand of humor, satire, and voice, and the premise of the novella seemed charming and interesting: the queen of England begins to read out of the blue, causing more than a little commotion. I was intrigued. I swiftly picked the book up and settled in for a couple of hours in the company of the British monarch. The novella is just over 100 pages, and is such a brisk and lovely read, anyone who considers themselves a book fan will immediately be drawn in.


On a day like any other, one of Queen Elizabeth II’s pooches gets a bit away from her and she happens on a mobile library on its weekly stop at the palace, yet this is the queen’s first time encountering it. She takes a moment to look at the books, but being the monarch and never having had the time nor, really and ironically, the permission to read, she finds herself a bit embarrassed, especially when confronted with the option of borrowing a book. She decides to do so to humor the merchant and to save face, and goes about her day. Much to her surprise, she reads the book and thoroughly enjoys the experience, and the following week returns the one she read, and promptly borrows another. She encounters a kitchen employee at the stand and quickly he begins to be a recommender of sorts, providing her with a reading list. The queen begins to devour books, and, much to the chagrin of her employees and courtiers, she begins to ignore her duties, even the prime minister is appalled by this behavior. Everyone attempts to thwart the queen in her new passion, including Prince Philip, who misses his boring and taciturn wife.

alan bennett
Alan Bennett

Bennett masterfully is able to take a pretty ingenious premise and do something quite radical with it. A hobby, the smallest of vices, becomes scandalous and all thanks to the fact alluded to in the title of the novella. A play on words, the ‘uncommon’ aspect is both the fact that such a reader is out of the ordinary, and the fact that in British English the term ‘common’ is synonymous with lower class or something that is quite the opposite of ‘posh’, and nobody is more posh than the queen. But the books is also a lovely love letter to reading and to the notion that nobody is too old, too ‘common’, too alienated or alienating, to become a voracious reader. The love of books, in the queen’s case everyone from the Bröntes to Proust to Alice Munro, is universal and available and accessible to anyone. I really enjoyed my little visit with the queen and appreciated her cheeky behavior and insolence towards expectations. The moral is that reading really is freeing, even when you are the British Monarch – and ultimately nothing is more democratic or egalitarian than that!


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