Books: The Uncommon Reader

I sometimes have trouble enjoying satire but The Uncommon Reader does it just right. Alan Bennett pokes fun – but gently – at the sometimes stuffy rituals of the monarchy and at people who do not read and do not appreciate seeing others reading.

I knew from The End of Your Life Book Club (where I learned about this book) that the Queen of England in this novella is not intended to depict the personality of the actual queen. As one reader review at points out, it’s a bit odd to read a book about a fictional version of a real person (at least one who is still living). Knowing the character is fictional, however, I managed to get past that oddness and just enjoy the book.

It’s an interesting exploration of the power of books to change the people who read them. I have always read both for pleasure and for learning, and it’s hard for me to imagine discovering the joy of reading late in life and trying to make up for lost time. The Queen certainly succeeds, however, devouring classics I have not yet attempted to read.

It’s apparently also a commentary on society, as the people around the Queen are puzzled or put off by her new-found devotion to books. I have a bit of trouble understanding why they react as they do, though whether it’s because I lack an understanding of British views or because I am such a bibliophile myself I don’t know.

I got into the habit of taking a book with me just about everywhere when I was young, so I can understand the Queen’s desire to do so. My husband has the same habit, and now so do our sons. We generally arrive at church early (my husband being the pastor), and others who arrive early are likely to see myself and my sons lined up on a sofa, each with book in hand and nose in book. Occasionally I wonder if it strikes anyone as odd, but if it does I think it’s odd in a good way.

Does reading make one more understanding of other people, as it does in the Queen’s case? I tend to think it does, as one sees things through other people’s eyes. But I can’t say that non-readers are less understanding – perhaps they don’t read because they enjoy the company of other people so much and naturally find themselves trying to see things from those people’s perspective.

We had friends, in one place we used to live, who had hardly any reading material in their house. It seemed very strange to me, and I thought it was too bad their children would not grow up enjoying all the books my sons did. They struck me as doers more than thinkers, with a love of the outdoors and physical activities. They certainly cared about other people – both parents were trained as first responders. Reading may not come as easily to them, but I can’t say their lives are less rich – just rich in different ways.

Some reviews of this book think it should have addressed how the Queen could have used books to improve society, and are disappointed with the ending. But I think part of the appeal of this book is that it doesn’t try to suggest answers to the big problems of life. Books that do tend to take themselves rather seriously, and The Uncommon Reader does not.

It makes one smile. It makes one think. And it makes one want to read more books. That’s a pretty good outcome for any book.


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