The Uncommon Reader

In The Uncommon Reader, playwright Alan Bennett’s 2007 novel, you’ll meet an 80-year-old woman who suddenly discovers the pleasures of reading and writing.  But she’s not just any  80-year-old woman, she’s the ruler of an empire, the Head of the Commonwealth and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England–none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself. You know, the one with the big round hats and little yapping corgis.

Bennett imagines the queen chasing after one of her boisterous corgis in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. She rounds a corner and comes upon a bookmobile, a traveling library, parked back by the kitchens. “…now that one is here,” she remarks to the librarian, “I suppose one ought to borrow a book.” And so, out of a sense of duty, she checks out her first public library book.  

The next week, she borrows another book, then another and another. Up until now, she hadn’t considered herself a reader. But following the recommendations of the only other palace bookmobile patron–a young kitchen worker– she soon finds herself reading Proust and Balzac, Turgenev and Trollope. She eventually becomes more interested in reading T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes than in carrying out her ceremonial duties. All she wants to do is read. 

Her staff suspects dementia. 

She’s simply realizing what she’s missed. Before long, the queen comes to dread the hours spent away from her books. One time she hides the book she’s currently reading in the cushions of her coach so she can quickly return to it after a dull ceremony at Westminster. When she returns to the coach and reaches for her book, it’s gone. She’s so distressed that the duke has to remind her, “Wave, for God’s sake!” as they roll along. 

Upon learning that security had confiscated and exploded her book, the queen exclaims, “Exploded? But it was Anita Brookner.” (I love this line.)

Like so many good books, The Uncommon Reader is by turns funny, poignant, and wise. Or, as the queen herself put it:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something–a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things–which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

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