Friday, February 1, 2008
The Uncommon Reader
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett weighs in at a mere 120 pages; however, he packs this short little book with a lot of fun. The premise is simple. The (fictional?) Queen of England takes up reading one day quite by accident. She is chasing her barking dogs in her garden when she stumbles upon a bookmobile parked near the back of the castle. Once inside to retrieve her dogs, she feels compelled to check out a book. She has never been much of a reader to this point, but over time she becomes the type of reader we would all recognize in ourselves -- the obsessive kind. By page 19, she is already keeping a list of books that she wants to read. She begins with light fare and grows with her passion to include some of the more difficult books in the world of literature. Much to the dismay of those around her (especially her private secretary), this passion is fed by Norman, a page in her employ. One books leads to another and this one in turn leads to another. The Queen feels that all too familiar feeling that assails bibliophiles at times -- the overwhelming anxiety that one will never be able to read all the books on that reading list. She also begins to regret the many opportunities that have passed her by in life. After all, she's met nearly everyone of any importance whatsoever, including many famous authors. At the time, she didn't have anything to talk to them about because she hadn't read any of their books. Now, what she would give for an opportunity to sit down with some of these people to discuss their works. There are also some authors she would like to 'take to task.' She begins to exhibit even more symptoms of bibliophilia. See if you recognize any of these signs. She begins talking to everyone around her about what she's reading and begins giving people books to read. She begins to lose interest in everything else around her. Though usually punctual, she begins to be late for appointments. She begins to care less about her appearance. Sound familiar? I had to wince a little when reading this because I wondered just how many people had rolled their eyes when I talked passionately about a book I was reading or generously offered to let them borrow one of my many books.
The Queen describes how she feels about reading when she says, "The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books 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. Actually she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies...It [reading] was anonymous; it was shared; it was common." All this reading does make an impact on the Queen. She begins to notice things and people around her. She begins to think about things quite differently.
This is a fun little novella and a must-read for anyone who couldn't imagine a life without books.