About the Book
Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library’s weekly visits to the palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another.
This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours works by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen’s literary odyssey to a close.
Format: Hardcover (128 pages) Publisher: Profile Books
Publication date: 6th September 2007 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Humour
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I spotted this lovely little copy in my local Oxfam bookshop and couldn’t resist bringing it home with me. The Uncommon Reader was republished in a new paperback edition in March 2021 to mark the Queen’s 95th birthday.
Sprinkled with humour, as well as recounting the Queen’s newfound love of reading, the book provides a behind-the-scenes look at life in a royal residence. I especially enjoyed the role reversal that ensues when the Queen’s ‘amanuensis’ Norman Seakins, a lowly palace employee whom she initally meets in the travelling library, organises a literary soirée. Unexpectedly, the Queen finds herself tongue-tied in the presence of authors whose books she’s read, in the same way members of the public often do when meeting her during royal visits.
Not only is The Uncommon Reader a delightful story, it’s also a love letter to reading. Here are just a few of Her Majesty’s thoughts on the subject, as imagined by the author.
“Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting.”
“Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other words.”
“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”
As someone who finds it hard not to finish a book, I was in sympathy with the Queen’s view, “Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate”. I could also identify with her observation that one book can lead to another or, as she puts it, “doors kept opening wherever she turned”. However, what I couldn’t share was her experience of having met literary luminaries such as E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot or Ted Hughes.
The Uncommon Reader is a gem of a book well worth finding a few hours of spare time to read between visiting a cheese factory or attending a tree-planting ceremony. And, like all good reads, it has a great ending.
In three words: Charming, funny, tender
About the Author
Alan Bennett has been one of our leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His television series Talking Heads has become a modern-day classic, as have many of his works for the stage, including Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, The Madness of King George Ill (together with the Oscar-nominated screenplay The Madness of King George) and an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. At the National Theatre, The History Boys won Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier awards, and the South Bank Award. On Broadway, The History Boys won five New York Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, a New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best Play, a New York Drama League Award and six Tonys including Best Play. The film of The History Boys was released in 2006. Alan Bennett’s collection of prose, Untold Stories, won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, 2006. He was named Reader’s Digest Author of the Year, 2005. (Photo credit: Goodreads)