Book Diary: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

THE UNCOMMON READER, Alan Bennett

(finished reading on 26/03/2012)

I am still reading 1Q84, which although I maintain I’m not worried about rushing, I will admit that I am now aware that when I started reading it, it was winter – it’s now spring.  There’s something a bit wrong about allowing an entire season to pass and still be on the same book, but – whatever.

In the meantime, on a quiet morning at work, I picked this book up from the ‘Lounge Reading’.  It was a donation to the small library we have there and I read it in one go.  It only took a few hours.  I’ve never read any Alan Bennett before, although I really liked The Madness of King George, which the fly-leaf for The Uncommon Reader tells me Bennett wrote the screen play for, as adapted from his play, The Madness of George III.

I enjoyed it a lot – it would be hard not too – as it really is charming, in the proper sense.  What I liked about it was that it’s a love-letter to reading, or, the ‘perfect argument for reading’.  This reminded me of those books that seem to be doing the rounds at the moment, about why reading is important and worthy and why it holds such an appeal for some people.  In fact, my sister bought one of these books at Bath LitFest, which she later said was ‘a bit shit’, excepting a few choice quotes.  I’m on dangerous ground saying this, as I’ve not read any of those books, but I feel like The Uncommon Reader probably does, fictionally, much better than those essay-filled books in conveying the wonder and exhilaration one gets from reading.

There are many lovely and bracing quotes about love for reading.  Here are some of my favourites:

‘At her age, people thought, why bother [to read]?  To her though, nothing could have been more serious, and she felt about reading what some writers felt about writing, that it was impossible not to do it.’

Regarding the potential reading has to make you a better person:

‘Previously she wouldn’t have cared what the maid thought or that she might have hurt her feelings … That this access of consideration might have something to do with books … did not at that moment occur to her.’

Regarding literature as a container for all of life:

”I would have thought’, said the prime, ‘that Your Majesty was above literature.’

‘Above literature?’ said the Queen.  ‘Who is above literature?  You may as well say one was above humanity.”

The use of the Queen as the uncommon reader is also cleverly perfect for the book’s premise of reading being the ultimate democracy:

‘The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature.  Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them at all.  All readers were equal, herself included.’

The ending is quite brilliant (and I didn’t see it coming whatsoever), as we witness the Queen chosing this democracy over her own monarchy, and abdicating in order to take up the life of a writer.

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