Review of “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

This entertaining novella spins a tale out of the fanciful image of the Queen of England, as she approaches her eighties, becoming an avid reader, and indeed, as she declares, an “opsimath” or “one who learns only late in life.”

Quite amusingly however, her staff assumes she has gone a bit daft, and is coming down with Alzheimer’s. They also conspire to keep her from her books, since she gets too absorbed in them and neglects her public duties.

Even worse, she starts giving “assignments” of reading to those who come see her, such as the Prime Minister. In one hilarious (but x-rated) passage, the secretary to the Prime Minister calls the secretary to the Queen to complain. The Queen’s secretary thereupon goes to see the oldest living royal servant, Sir Claude Pollington, for help. Sir Claude visits the Queen and advises her that it would be a good use of her time to write her memoirs rather than read books. His talk causes the Queen to muse, “You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there.”

Discussion: The Queen makes a number of discoveries as she begins to read. One is the indifference of literature: “Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.”

She also finds, after a disastrous attempt at hosting a number of authors, that “authors… were probably best met within the pages of their novels…”

Bennett’s clever story humorously captures both the joy of reading and the frustration readers face in the company of nonreaders. He also aims to show how much reading can transform a person, as well as how an informed reader can transform a book. The Queen becomes a new person, a person formed by Proust, Dickens, Hardy and Austen, inter alios, and she is the better for it.

Evaluation: A delightful way to pass an hour or two.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007


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25 Responses to Review of “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

  1. JoAnn says:

    I absolutely loved this book. Your review is perfectly timed…just read in today’s Writer’s Almanac that it is Alan Bennett’s birthday!

  2. nymeth says:

    Thank you for reminding me of how much I enjoyed this! It was indeed a delight.

  3. Barbara says:

    This sounds super. I love it that everyone thought she was going off the deep end because she was reading. My husband’s sentiments exactly. 😀

  4. Julie P. says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Loved this one and was highly entertained.

  5. zibilee says:

    I have been wanting to read this book since it first came out, and am very happy to see that you liked it so much. I think the premise, and the fact that it is written with such humor really entices me. I need to get off my butt and grab this one soon! Thanks for reminding me, and for the awesome review!

  6. Steph says:

    I feel like I am the last person on the planet who hasn’t read this book. I don’t expect it to be lifechanging, but it seems like such a fun read for those of us who already know the joy of books.

  7. Ceri says:

    Wow, I had no idea someone fictionalised the queen and put her in a book. Ha! I really really really want to read this. This is going straight in my wishlist. Just love the idea – perfect for us bookworms. 😉

  8. Margot says:

    No, Steph, I’m the last person who hasn’t read this book but I really want to. I love the new-to-me word opsimath. It’s leading me to think of all sorts of uses.

  9. BermudaOnion says:

    I thought this book was fabulous as well!

  10. Wasn’t this just a wonderful little book. It was a great way to spend some time.

  11. Meg says:

    I’ve heard of this one but never paused to actually read what it was about — and what a shame! Your review had definitely piqued my interest . . . must get my hands on this one!

  12. Staci says:

    I absolutely fell in love with this one. Made me really pray that the Queen loved books like she was portrayed in this gem.

  13. Jenners says:

    This does sound like a fun and enjoyable little book. It makes me wonder if the Queen has read it.

  14. Sandy says:

    An hour or two? Sign me up! This is one of those books that I keep hearing about. A book about books, that all bibliophiles have to love. I think I’ll just have to order it from the library!

  15. ds says:

    Oh, it was a fun book! I think at one point she even becomes sick of her hats 😉

  16. Jaymie says:

    This sounds like a fun read! Thanks for the recommendation.

  17. Gaye says:

    Golly gee, I loved this book too! I talked about it so much that I guess people thought I really wanted it AND I received TWO copies of it for Christmas the year that I read it. It is the perfect blend to the Royal wedding week. Do you think Charles has ever read a book? Alan Bennett is my kind of bloke!

  18. Care says:

    I’m glad I’ve read this one, if just to say Yep-I’ve-read-it. I don’t know enough Britishisms to truly appreciate it, however.

  19. cbjames says:

    You’re right about the delight of this book. But it does suggest a darker point. The Queen’s reading cause much real trouble. Reading to the point of obsession, can be detrimental and a new idea, even at an old age, often comes at a price.

  20. stacybuckeye says:

    What fun. I smiled just reading your thoughts so I’ll have to add it to my reading list. I think that it’s harder for an author to be met within his own pages today since he must sell himself to sell books!

  21. Aarti says:

    This is one I’ve had on my wishlist for quite a while, but never remember to look for when I’m out and about. It seems like everyone enjoys it 🙂

  22. Lisa says:

    This was one of my favorite books of 2009; it was quite a delight. I loved the ending!

  23. I loved this book! I found myself laughing out loud and nodding in understanding quite frequently. Glad to see you enjoyed it, too.

  24. Trish says:

    I like that idea that books don’t care who is reading them. I’ve been wanting to read this one for years but always forget about it when I’m book buying. Glad you enjoyed it Jill! Maybe for the next readathon…

  25. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

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