Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

This is the most delightful book I have read so far this year. I loved loved loved it. It was delicious. Am I revealing appalling ignorance by admitting that, heretofore, I knew nothing of the author, Alan Bennett? How can I call myself an anglophile, and still admit this in print? But there it is for all to see: I never heard of him before I came across a review of this book in the New York Times book review a few weeks ago. Apparently he's quite a busy man so now I have much to look forward to!

This slim volume, really a novella, tells the charming story of a woman (known only as the Queen) who becomes an avid reader late in life. It chronicles her growth as a reader, guided at first by Norman, a palace kitchen worker she meets in the traveling bookmobile, then later by her own intelligence and natural curiosity. The banter between the Queen and Norman is brilliant, and the Queen's progress through literature is joyful and endearing. The reaction of her family and the public to her reading is mixed; her ministers feel neglected, and the public is initially baffled when the Queen asks them, during walkabouts, what they are reading. Even her dogs get lonely. It's all very very funny.

I love the Queen, the actual British queen, I mean. I suppose if I were British, I would feel obliged to have some opinion on the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century, and all that, but as a U.S. citizen I feel free to just enjoy her. I admire her dedication to her job, her professionalism, her unflagging energy, her sense of duty, and her lack of frivolity. I know, I know I don't really know her. Watching Helen Mirren play her doesn't count. And neither, really, does reading this book. But if the real Queen is anything like the character in this book, then we have a lot in common! For example, we like a lot of the same books and authors, and share a lot of opinions about books and about reading! Several times during this book I thought "Yes! That's so true!" Here is one example:

"Can there be any greater pleasure," she confided in her neighbor, 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."

Nothing delights me more than a discovery like that. And here's another:

As a reader, she was brisk and straightforward; she didn't want to wallow in anything.

Yes! How many times have I said this here! No wallowing! The Queen likes Anita Brookner, Joanna Trollope and Nancy Mitford. She thinks Henry James goes on a bit too much. She even likes Lauren Bacall's memoirs, which I too thought were great. She looks at a stack of books on her desk and thinks that they look good enough to eat. How can you not love this woman?

(Book 47, 2007)


Sam said...

I read this one last week, too, and had the same reaction. I really enjoyed it...laughing out loud is a good thing. :-)

Unknown said...

Sounds like a good book, going to have to add it to my list.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this particular book, but I have read several others by Alan Bennett, and seen several of his plays. He is a wonderful writer, I can't rate him too highly. One of my favourites of his is a TV film which you may be able to get, based on a true story when the actress Coral Browne was in a play in Moscow and she met Guy Burgess -- do see it if you can. They filmed it in Dundee, which apparently is a good stand-in for Moscow.
Bennett has written so many brilliant and funny things it is hard to highlight any, but you may have heard of the movie "The Madness of King George". His latest play won lots of awards on Broadway and elsewhere last year, The History Boys, and was made into a film that is now available on DVD. I have not seen the film but I enjoyed the play -- well, the first act, the second was not quite up to his very best standard, but lovely nonetheless.

Felicia J. said...

I purchased this book at Barnes and Noble after reading your review. It sounds delicious.

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