Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Royal Reading That Even Anti-Monarchists Can Love: Alan Bennet's The Uncommon Reader

The book last night at the book group was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. For once the discussion was a free-for-all with no one leading, but everyone contributing because all had read it with delight.

The premise is that the Queen stumbles upon the City of Westminster traveling library while walking the dogs. The animals bark their heads off at the van and Her Majesty, noblesse oblige, must apologize to the driver/librarian. The only other patron is Norman, a young man who works in the palace’s kitchen.

“Oh,” says Her Majesty. “Do you have much time for reading?”
“Not really, ma’am.”
“I’m the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.”

So begins the Queen’s initiation to reading for pleasure which leads her very far a field indeed. Bennet portrays her as an intelligent, observant woman who for various reasons never uncovered the delights of letting one’s curiosity lead one wherever the printed word tempts one. This causes great problems for her entourage until in the end she is ready to put aside reading for writing, which has even greater repercussions.

Bennet chronicles Her Majesty’s growing discernment, and the reader either nods in agreement with her judgment or silently objects--not aloud, of course: one never objects so crassly to what the Monarch says. That’s part of the joke because, of course the reader is so much more knowledgeable about books than One is.

The only quibble in the book group came from the anti-Monarchists among us. Their initial reaction was: who wants to read about the Queen, really? But as in the ad for the kosher bakery, you don’t have to be Monarchist to love Bennet’s book. I started it during a long wait for a doctor’s appointment, and ended up staying in the waiting room after the appointment in order to finish.

It would be interesting to know if One has read it, and what She thought.

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