Several years ago, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader was an “All Fairfax Reads” selection when that county program was still current. A few months ago, we voted to have it on our reading list for book group. Its brevity was a major selling point, but initially I wasn’t impressed. I gave it a shot, and enjoyed it. However, it wouldn’t make my all-time favorite list. Then I, listening to the conversation around me at the discussion before I made a point, realized something. It’s very funny! As readers, we could all relate to the main character’s experiences. Well, at least to a point.
The main character in this case is Queen Elizabeth II. One day, she wanders around the Buckingham Palace grounds, takes a wrong turn, and finds a mobile library parked outside. Although there are many libraries in the palace, she takes a special interest in this one. She greets the operator. Once he gets over his shock, he recommends books to her. She strikes up a conversation with him and they begin an informal discussion group. She eventually hires him as a palace page. The Queen is introduced to many authors she has never read before. I don’t want to give the extremely thin plot away, but what transpires is worth sticking around for.
In one scene, the Queen is extremely bored with Henry James. I can relate. The film The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, is way better than James’ The Turn of the Screw. Don’t watch it alone on a rainy day. Washington Square left me uninspired, but I did attempt it.
“Oh, do go on,” she says impatiently–unintentionally upsetting a maid who has been working in the room. She apologizes, and peace is restored. But who hasn’t nearly given up on an author at one time or another? Sometimes you just need to try a work again. If you and the work don’t ever click, that’s fine. And who hasn’t closed a book at an exciting point because of other responsibilities–but can’t wait to pick it back up again in quiet moments to see how it will all turn out? At various times, we are all part of the “shut up and let me read” crowd. At other times, we feel guilty that we’ve spent the entire day reading, because “reading isn’t doing.” But it’s not so easy to continue reading when you have to do something else . The Queen tries it, with hysterical results.
She also gives Marcel Proust a try. In the novel Remembrance of Things Past, Proust looks back on a life that, apparently in his opinion, hasn’t amounted to much. He resolves to redeem his life by writing the novel.
Another observation is that reading is the great equalizer, because books are available for anyone to explore. There’s also no better conversation starter than “What are you reading?” You never know how people will respond.
I guess being an “uncommon reader” means reading widely and enthusiastically, and being open to authors, stories, and topics.Another great quote from the book is this: “You don’t put your life into your books; you find it there.” Reading often reflects our daily lives and interests.