Imagine if the Queen had only discovered reading later in life? That’s the premise of Alan Bennett’s lovely novella, The Uncommon Reader. While taking her corgis for a walk, the Queen happens upon a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace. Intrigued, she boards the bus and meets Mr. Hutchings, the library’s driver and Norman, a young man who works in her kitchen. She feels duty-bound to select a book, but when asked what kind of book she likes her response is, essentially, that she doesn’t know.
She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies.
The Queen casts about, looking for something to borrow and discovers a name she recognizes.
“Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr. Hutchings to stamp.
“What a treat!” she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. “Oh. The last time it was taken out was 1989.”
“She’s not a popular author, ma’am.”
“Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.”
The Uncommon Reader is full of laugh out loud moments like this one and is, in fact, an utterly charming book. The Queen, despite a rather rocky beginning, turns into a voracious reader. She promotes Norman from the kitchen to a new position, a sort of personal assistant, and that causes all sorts of problems with other staff members.
For a while nothing comes between the Queen and her books. Like all devoted readers, she’s never without one and dinner party conversations invariably turn to the topic of what people are reading. Instead of being told about the books of authors she meets, the Queen now wants to read their work.
“But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?”
“Of course, ” said the Queen, “but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”
The Uncommon Reader is a love letter to reading.
“Books are not about passing the time,” she admonishes Sir Kevin. “They’re about other lives. Other worlds.”
The Queen proves to be, at the end of the day, just like the rest of us who couldn’t imagine a life without books.