What would happen if the Queen became a serious reader? She is, after all, known to have many interests – horses, dogs, hats etc. But somehow the public does not know if she reads and what she reads. Unlike certain Heads of States (more precisely Barrack Obama) who put out their Christmas reading lists and Summer reading lists, the Queen does no such thing. So Alan Bennett‘s delightful little book ‘The Uncommon Reader’ is an imagined account of the Queen discovering books.
We very much enjoyed chancing upon this hilarious and sometimes touching story of a new reader, immersed in the books she has discovered. As readers we can understand, when the Queen claims a ‘slight cold’ that keeps her in bed, all because she is in the midst of a good book. As also the desire to shut out the rest of the world and her resentment at the call of duty as they interfere with finishing the book in hand. All readers are vaguely aware that this shutting out of the world causes considerable irritation in the people around us who want to make demands on our time. But that is of course their problem. It is not then surprising that the reader can sympathise very much with the Queen when the irritation actually manifests itself in the insidious ways in which her household and equerries try to separate her from her books.
In a way some of the situations in the book are very similar to the Yes Minister series where the bureaucrats’ require those under their purview to conform and not go off and do their own thing without permission. Similarly, the Queen while attending functions, is not supposed to veer away from the prescribed formula of asking her subjects where they have travelled from and how long it took them to get there. Instead she stumps people by asking them what they are reading! And surprisingly, no one seemed to have an answer. Apparently nobody reads.
The book has many insights into what readers feel about books and reading ‘A book did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.’ and ‘Books are wonderful aren’t they? At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one.’
As always, it’s nice to read books about books and the reading experience. And one always identifies with the obstacles faced by readers in their pursuit of books, no matter where they come from. Alan Bennett’s novella is quirky and whimsical and makes the Queen sound very human, particularly when she has a book open on her lap, while seated in her carriage, and just looks up once in a while to wave to the people lining the road. Somewhat like a child who is ostensibly studying but actually reading Harry Potter behind the cover of a school text book.