Sunday, February 24, 2008
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
While walking her pack of Corgis around the grounds of Windsor Palace, the Queen of England sees something she has not seen before, a bookmobile parked outside the kitchen door. She investigates to find that the bookmobile comes every Wednesday afternoon, and one of her kitchen staff, Norman Seakin, is an avid reader. Norman’s interest in books leans towards English gay writers, although he seems well versed in all literature. The Queen doesn’t read books, being too busy with reading reports and conducting audiences with heads of state and such, but as an act of kindness, she lets Norman select a novel for her to check out.
The queen discovers that reading is a joy, and the next Wednesday she consults Norman on another selection.
As the queen is drawn into the world of literature, book by book, life at the palace begins to change. She begins to cut audiences short, even with her own Prime Minister, so she can have more time to read. She begins showing up late for events, having forgotten the time because she was lost in her book. She tries to discuss literature with everyone around her but finds that nobody reads books. She promotes Norman from kitchen help to literary consultant, so they can spend hours each day discussing books. Norman leads the queen on a journey through E. M. Forester, Nancy Mitford, Emily Dickenson, Jane Austin, Ian McEwan, Proust and many others. As the Queen’s day to day obligations continue to suffer, the Royal Secretary, the Prime Minister, and others begin to plot how they can rid the palace of Norman so the Queen can get back to her normal proficient self. Will they succeed or will their plotting backfire?
I had known of Alan Bennett’s writing talent from his success with The History Boys and The Madness of King George. But I had not read anything by him before this.
This novella is a sheer delight: smart, funny, and keeps the reader fully engaged throughout. It paints an affectionate portrait of the Queen and makes you want to curl up in front of a fire and discuss Proust with her. It is a simple plot, but one that will delight you and surprise you in the end. Underneath this simple, humorous story, is a meditation on the merits and limitations of reading, and how books can soften, or at least alter, your life and those around you.
If you enjoy tight prose, interesting characters, British humor, and the power of books, do yourself a huge favor and read this novella. But beware: you just might be drawn down the same path as the Queen, and then where will you be?