Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Uncommon Reader uncommonly good

Books now read in ’07: 120
Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-18
Pages: 120

Bookstores in Washington are reporting that Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is flying off the shelves. That should come as no surprise. It is an entertaining book about the British monarchy, a source of fascination to a sizeable number of Americans.

Bennett’s conceit, in this novella (the book runs 120 pages) is what would happen if, at the age of 80, the Queen suddenly became a voracious reader? Initially the Queen, who has stumbled into a library book van, resists the lure of reading.

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

Eventually, the Queen does succumb. “What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” Yes, I know that feeling.

One final quote: “Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met with in the pages of their novels, and as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books.”

The Queen’s advisors aren’t at all comfortable with the idea of the monarch as reader and there are subtle efforts to discourage her. The Queen’s passion for reading does finally wane, but with results no less unsettling to her advisors.

Bennett has given us a delicious read. Not so much laugh out loud funny as designed to evoke a grin of delight or recognition. As an animated pitchman might say, The Uncommon Reader is uncommonly good.

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