If you like to read, and since you’re reading this blog I think we can assume you do, then you will probably enjoy THE UNCOMMON READER, Alan Bennett’s novella which answers the question, “What if The Queen of England started reading late in life?” The results are by turns witty, wise, and appealing.
Bennett peppers this short novel with lots of inside jokes about the monarchy and British culture. For example, the Queen becomes so addicted to reading that she begins to “perform her public duties with a perceived reluctance: she laid foundation stones with less élan,” and when the prime minister and his wife visit the English countryside, they are described as “having exhausted the area’s shopping potential by buying a tweed rug and a box of shortbread.” And so on.
The Queen, like all good readers, has emotional reactions to famous writers. Those of us who have slogged through Henry James can appreciate both her initial reaction—“Am I alone in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”—and her later response, after she’s had more experience with him: “After all, novels are not necessarily written as the crow flies.” Her description of Proust is also priceless.
The ending (which I will not spoil) is surprising and brilliant, but my favorite part is when she recites a Philip Larkin poem and begins to realize how we absorb what we read and how it affects our identity.
That gave me something to think about.