Alan Bennett made a fool of me on the bus and the train during peak hour. Yes, I blame Bennett for making me look like a loony on public transport. I was reading The Uncommon Reader and couldn’t get the stupid grin off my face. I even sniggered at one point; I think the person next to me would have got up and moved to another seat, had there been one.
“The Pursuit of Love turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell.”
Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
Bennett’s novella is ‘about’ Queen Elizabeth II discovering the thrill of reading late in life, but this comic allegory isn’t really about royalty; it’s about the Republic of Reading and how becoming a citizen can change you.
The author’s decision to make Queen Elizabeth II his protagonist creates comic tension. One of the things that the Queen’s admirers love about her is that she never seems to change; year after year she represents the same values. Her seemingly eternal, unchanging presence is reassuring. Yet one of the main points of Bennett’s novel is that reading changes people, and over the course of The Uncommon Reader the Queen does indeed change greatly, much to the horror of her advisors and people such as the prime minister. The Queen’s opinions and behaviours start taking a frighteningly egalitarian turn, all because of those troublesome, unwelcome books.
In just 118 pages, Bennett succinctly charts the experiences many readers go through (initial bewilderment at the choices on offer, imaginative insights into the lives of others, an increasing discernment in selecting books, a desire to meet one’s favourite authors that can lead to disappointment, and so on). The author could have written an essay on the value and pleasure of reading, but instead he shows us how reading changes and enriches the life of his main character.
What a pleasure this was to read. Alan Bennett, I dub thee a Knight of the Most Noble Order of Saint Caxton, Defender of the Book.