Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review - Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Published by: Picador
Publication Date: 2007
Format: Paperback, 120 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The Uncommon Reader
is a short novella by Alan Bennett, the distinguished playwright and former member of Beyond the Fringe. This is a bittersweet tale of finding something you love too late and having the constant drive to catch up. The feeling of all those lost opportunities and not willing to waste a single moment. The book is built around the premise of what would happen should the Queen wander into a mobile library to apologize for the ruckus her dogs are causing and then feels obliged to take a book out on loan. Her first book is a disastrous choice and the story would have ended there had she not picked up Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford on her second visit. A book she picks up because "novels seldom came as well-connected as this and the Queen felt correspondingly reassured." She becomes so engrossed in the book that she even plays sick to finish it. That second book becomes the jumping off point where she becomes a biblomanic in the extreme, promoting the kitchen boy Norman to be her amanuensis (her "enabler" as it were). One book leads to another which leads to another, all with the feeling that she has left things too late...all the books she won't have time to read, all the authors she has met who she had nothing to say to then. Her work doesn't significantly suffer outwardly, but her keepers begin to worry that she is going batty and attempt to curtail her reading at every opportunity, from claiming they thought a book was a suspicious device (they blew it up) to having packages go missing in transit and her Norman being sent off to the University of East Anglia to get an English degree.

The humor and language are wondrous and full of dry wit. The Queen while reading books discovers that while she is meant to appear human she has never truly been human, being set apart. The books she reads make her understand human nature all the more. But as she learns of the humanity all around her you become connected to the humanity she posses and wish for one second that this glimpse into the Queen and her life were not fiction. You also come away with a desire to read more and more and all the books she talks about you want to have read as well so you could be more included in the jokes. But in the end the Queen comes to realize that reading is a more passive activity, that while it helps you find your life you are still an observer, and she is a doer. Her desire to write then ensues, and I will not tell you the ending because it is abrupt and 100% supremely perfect.

I think every anglophile and biblomanic should pick up this book for a wonderful quick read that was written to coincide with the Queen's 80th birthday. Also pay attention closely to all Alan Bennett's little word plays and subtle distinctions in grammar, when the Queen goes from speaking of herself as "One" to "I" you know something is afoot. One also starts to wonder if the Queen herself has read it. And as a final note, I just love that Alan Bennett used a bit of his old friend and fellow Fringer, Peter Cook's miner sketch about Proust dipping his biscuit in his tea and having all his memories come flooding back to him in the book (make sure you adapt a suitably silly accent with proper slurs when you say this). Or as Bennett stated in the book: "The curious thing about [Proust] was that when he dipped his cake in his tea (disgusting habit) the whole of his past life came back to him. Well, I tried it and it had no effect on me at all."


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