Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Uncommon Reader

Once upon a time the Queen of England was walking her dogs in the Buckingham Palace gardens when they took an interest in the bookmobile parked behind the palace kitchens. When the dogs refused to come back to her, Queen Elizabeth went to retrieve them and decided to borrow a book from the mobile library just to be polite. Before she knew it, one book led to another, and the good Queen became an avid reader and lived happily ever after.

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is a laugh-out-loud novella that does indeed read like a fairy tale at times but the little book packs a lot into its 120 pages. Avid readers will recognize themselves in Queen Elizabeth as she exercises her “reading muscle” and progresses from reading anything suggested to her by others to falling in love with “new” authors and more serious literature. They also will recognize the reactions of the Queen’s family and staff who are somewhat bewildered to find that she carries a book with her wherever she goes and has lost interest in many of the things that previously kept her busy. Not only do they not understand her new love of reading, they come to resent her for it, and some even suspect that she is showing the first signs of senility.

Her move along the road to a new sensibility and self-awareness allows Elizabeth to make some observations that are guaranteed to put smiles on the faces of book lovers. At a reception in Canada, for instance, she remarks to one Canadian minister, “Can there be any greater pleasure than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen.”

On another occasion, when being briefed by a befuddled member of her staff who does not understand why she suddenly prefers reading to his briefings, she tells him that “…briefing is not reading. In fact, it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”

For a while, the sheer joy of reading is enough for Elizabeth as she begins to regard the world and those around her with a new empathetic understanding. But, as her self-awareness continues to grow, she comes to believe that she is meant to be not only a reader but also a writer. That is the twist that leads to Alan Bennett’s unexpected, but perfect, ending to his charming little tale. This one will be special to book lovers everywhere.

Rated at: 4.5

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