The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The book club’s reaction to this book was unanimously positive, combined with pleasant surprise that such an apparently slight book threw up so many points of discussion.Even though the protagonist was such an uncommon reader, her reading journey struck chords with all the ‘commoners’ reading.*

Her foil – if he can be called that – Norman, was a favourite character. Even though his reading material could sometimes be suspect, the process of his promotion to Queen’s amanuensis was cited as a laugh-out-loud part of the book. His dismissal to the University of East Anglia, and subsequent triumphal return at the end of the book, symbolised the Queen’s reading journey coming full circle.

Libraries are fairly important supporting characters in this book.

  • Coming across the ramshackle travelling library by accident is what starts the Queen off on the whole reading odyssey that makes up the book. (Her differing reactions to Ivy Compton-Burnett as her reading experience widens mirrored the experience that some of the book club’s members had with the writer’s dry style.)
  • Seasoned readers know that reading is carried out anytime and anywhere, and that is something the uncommon reader comes to realise. But early on in her reading life, feeling like reading might be best carried out in a place formally designated for it, she tries to use her library. Discovering that it is a place where priceless volumes are locked away, better suited for contracts and other matters of state, she soon decamps.
  • On the whole the Queen has better luck with public libraries, whether travelling or fixed – a lot of her reading material comes from the London Library.

The book’s ‘message’, if it can be called that, is all about grabbing hold of experiences that come one’s way. The Queen’s decision to start writing suggests that she realises the importance of continuing to ‘do’.

There was some disagreement as to whether the Queen’s unique status might enable her to see minute social niceties clearly because she is not a participant or whether she is simply too far away from those experiences to have an understanding of these intricacies.

Her character, however, manages to arouse a feeling of affinity even in non-Royalist readers – able to relate to her despite their objections to the institution of which she is part. But her kindness doesn’t prevent two fairly summary sackings – suggesting that Norman’s initial notion of her as an ‘old lady’ doesn’t last long.

There was quite a lively discussion that took off from Sir Kevin’s fondness for business-speak. Some of the terms: Bullshit bingo, Sunset that, Touching base, Outside the box, Going forward, Actually, Literally, In terms of.

* The book makes some fairly serious points about readers’ experiences amongst non-readers. Given the solitary nature of the pursuit, it is unsurprising that it evokes hostility (go out and live!) from those who don’t share the experience of living many lives in many worlds whilst sitting quietly. The trope of the ‘exploded’ book – to prevent a security threat – epitomises the extents to which this hostility can go.

The next book for discussion will be: Shakespeare’s Landlord by Charlaine Harris

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