The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett [in Christian Science Monitor]
“‘Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination,’” says the fictional Queen Elizabeth II when her footman informs her that her reading choice might have been an explosive device. Indeed, in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, books prove to be the people’s enemy as the queen becomes so absorbed between the pages that she eschews her royal duties.
It all begins when the royal canines inadvertently lead the monarch to the “City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors.” In her first meaningful literary foray, the queen will unknowingly choose her first title from a stack of literal discards.
Apparently the library’s only regular borrower is Norman, a young kitchen worker with a penchant for old musicals. Norman and the van are back the next week when the curious queen returns for a new title. By the following week, Norman has moved from washing dishes to tending the royal library – and becomes the queen’s de facto book supplier.
The more the queen reads, the more she regrets the many audiences she had with literati, wasted chances for meaningful exchanges. “Everybody’s dead,” she moans to her non-reading husband.
Lost in her literary reveries, books become the scapegoat of the royal household. Elaborate plots are attempted by the queen’s staff in hopes of recapturing her attention, even surreptitiously whisking Norman off to the University of East Anglia, from whence emerged the likes of Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, and Kazuo Ishiguro. “We’ve read those,” Norman responds to his new posting.
Without a literary accomplice, the queen takes to writing her responses in notebooks. What she discovers is her own voice, “… that sensible, down-to-earth tone of voice she was coming to recognize and even relish as her own style.” With “her faculties … never … sharper,” the nearly octogenarian queen feasts on the fruit of knowledge and finds herself jolted out of her royally circumscribed life.
The staggeringly prodigious Bennett, an award-winning playwright (The History Boys), bestselling novelist, and memoirist, has fun with the writers and books the queen relishes (and doesn’t). Avid readers will enjoy his playful erudition in this entertaining reminder as to why we read and write. Here’s hoping the multifaceted Bennett never puts down his pen.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult