The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

by Alan Bennett

Paperback(First Edition)

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From one of England's most celebrated writers, a funny and superbly observed novella about the Queen of England and the subversive power of reading

When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

With the poignant and mischievous wit of The History Boys, England's best loved author revels in the power of literature to change even the most uncommon reader's life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312427641
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 09/30/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 136,880
Product dimensions: 4.60(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Alan Bennett has been one of England's leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His work includes the Talking Heads television series, and the stage plays Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, and The Madness of King George III. His play, The History Boys, filmed in 2006, won six Tony Awards, including best play. His memoir, Untold Stories, was a number-one bestseller in the United Kingdom.

Read an Excerpt

At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.’

‘Ah,’ said the president. ‘Oui.’

The ‘Marseillaise’ and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.

‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,’ and she took up her soup spoon, ‘was he as good?’

Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous

playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Can-terbury.

‘Jean Genet,’ said the Queen again, helpfully. ‘Vous le connaissez?’

‘Bien sûr,’ said the president.

‘Il m’intéresse,’ said the Queen.

‘Vraiment?’ The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.

It was the dogs’ fault. They were snobs and ordinarily, having been in the garden, would have gone up the front steps, where a footman generally opened them the door.

Today, though, for some reason they careered along the terrace, barking their heads off, and scampered down the steps again and round the end along the side of the house, where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.

It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasn’t a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.

The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, ‘I’m sorry about this awful racket,’ where-upon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.

She put her head out of the door. ‘Shut up this minute, you silly creatures,’ which, as had been the move’s intention, gave the driver/librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.

‘One has never seen you here before, Mr . . .’

‘Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, ma’am.’

‘Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?’

‘Only from Westminster, ma’am.’

‘And you are …?’

‘Norman, ma’am. Seakins.’

‘And where do you work?’

‘In the kitchens, ma’am.’

‘Oh. 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.’

Mr Hutchings smiled helpfully.

‘Is there anything you would recommend?’

‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; pref-

erences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticket?’

‘No problem,’ said Mr Hutchings.

‘One is a pensioner,’ said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.

‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books.’

‘Six? Heavens!’

Meanwhile the ginger-haired young man had made his choice and given his book to the librarian to stamp. Still playing for time, the Queen picked it up.

‘What have you chosen, Mr Seakins?’ expecting it to be, well, she wasn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t what it was. ‘Oh. Cecil Beaton. Did you know him?’

‘No, ma’am.’

‘No, of course not. You’d be too young. He always used to be round here, snapping away. And a bit of a tartar. Stand here, stand there. Snap, snap. And there’s a book about him now?’

‘Several, ma’am.’

‘Really? I suppose everyone gets written about sooner or later.’

She riffled through it. ‘There’s probably a picture of me in it somewhere. Oh yes. That one.

Of course, he wasn’t just a photographer. He designed, too. Oklahoma!, things like that.’

‘I think it was My Fair Lady, ma’am.’

‘Oh, was it?’ said the Queen, unused to being contradicted. ‘Where did you say you worked?’ She put the book back in the boy’s big red hands.

‘In the kitchens, ma’am.’

She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking

volumes she saw a name she remembered. ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr Hutchings to stamp.

‘What a treat!’ she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.’

‘She’s not a popular author, ma’am.’

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.’

Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn’t necessarily the road to the public’s heart.

The Queen looked at the photograph on the back of the jacket. ‘Yes. I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head.’ She smiled and Mr Hutchings knew that the visit was over. ‘Goodbye.’

He inclined his head as they had told him at the library to do should this eventuality ever arise, and the Queen went off in the direction of the garden with the dogs madly barking again, while Norman, bearing his Cecil Beaton, skirted a chef lounging outside by the bins having a cigarette and went back to the kitchens.

Shutting up the van and driving away, Mr Hutchings reflected that a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett would take some reading. He had never got very far with her himself and thought, rightly, that borrowing the book had just been a polite gesture. Still, it was one that he appreciated and

as more than a courtesy. The council was always threatening to cut back on the library, and the patronage of so distinguished a borrower (or customer, as the council preferred to call it) would do him no harm.

‘We have a travelling library,’ the Queen said to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’

‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’

‘You remember Oklahoma!?’

‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.

‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’

‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’

‘Smelled delicious.’

‘What’s that?’

‘A book. I borrowed it.’

‘Dead, I suppose.’


‘The Beaton fellow.’

‘Oh yes. Everybody’s dead.’

‘Good show, though.’

And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

Excerpted from The Uncommon Reader by Forelake Ltd. Copyright © 2007 by Forelake Ltd. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Uncommon Reader are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Uncommon Reader.

Discussion Questions

1. Does your group meet regularly? If so, how do you think the queen, as fountain of honor, would appraise your list of reading so far?

2. The queen says that she reads because, "One has a duty to find out what people are like." Yet she begins by reading Nancy Mitford and Ivy Compton-Burnett, hardly a stretch for Her Royal Majesty. How did you begin your reading career? Was it Anne of Green Gables or Barbara Cartland? What treasured books on your group's list closely reflect your own world and background? Do you read to understand others? Is anyone present at this meeting a member of the titled aristocracy?

3. Early in The Uncommon Reader, the queen explains that she has resisted reading because it is a hobby, and therefore an expression of a preference—preferences exclude people and are to be avoided. Why does she fear that reading will exclude people – haven't we been brought together today by reading? Is your reading group very exclusive? Have you ever denied membership to someone who wanted to join?

4. "Herself part of the panoply of the world, why now was she intrigued by books, which, whatever else they might be, were just a reflection of the world or a version of it? Books? She had seen the real thing." Do you believe there is a difference between reading and experiencing? Isn't the act of reading a form of experience, or is that vein of thinking distinctly privileged?

5. At first the queen says that her purpose in reading is not primarily literary: it is for analysis and reflection. Why exactly do you read; is it a lofty endeavor or a fundamentally human one?

6. What do you think of the queen's values as a reader, for example her insistence upon reading a book all the way through to the end, regardless her level of engagement? Surely most of us would put a book down if within fifty pages it proved to be a tedious waste of time. Have you ever attempted to discuss a book you haven't read?

7. Authors, the queen decides, were probably best met within the pages of their novels, left to the imagination like their characters. Have you met any famous writers? What were they like? Was your experience anything like the queen's?

8. The appeal of books, according to the queen, lay in their indifference: there is something undeferring about literature, she says. Books do not care who reads them or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included. Do you agree? Have you ever felt unequal to a book? Superior to one?

9. When the queen first meets the man in the book mobile, she refers to herself as a pensioner – this is clearly a joke. Talk about how Alan Bennett gives voice to the queen and draws humor from her. How had your feelings for this seemingly inaccessible figure changed by book's end?

10. Why is Norman fond of Cecil Beaton, David Hockney and J.R. Ackerley, what do these three people have in common, besides being British artists and writers?

11. Should our leaders spend more time engaged in the arts, particularly in reading literature (for what it's worth, Bill Clinton said he loved Walter Mosely)? What would be the effect?

12. When the queen begins to ask her subjects what they are reading, she is usually met with a shrug (or the Bible, or Harry Potter). Are people intimidated by reading, or are they just lazy and dim?

13. As the queen reads, she grows less interested in her royal duties, and even her appearance (the "permutations" of her wardrobe) goes into decline. Is she becoming more normal, more common? How has reading endangered her ability to carry out her role as a focus for British identity and unity? Isn't that role just a little too much for anyone to shoulder?

14. The queen finds that one book often lead to another; that doors opened wherever she turned ("the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do"). Has The Uncommon Reader opened doors for you? Has it inspired or emboldened you to try a book you've been putting off. Proust, perhaps?

15. At first the queen does not like Henry James's Portrait of a Lady ("oh, do get on!"), but she finds that reading is like a muscle that needs to be developed, and later she changes her mind about James. Have you ever had a similar experience, upon revisiting a challenging book? Would you consider reading The Uncommon Reader again, in order to glean further nuance from its pages?

Customer Reviews

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The Uncommon Reader 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 189 reviews.
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
Whether or not you buy the dramatic twist at the end, this little book is engaging, original and surprisingly funny. I found myself smiling and nodding throughout and on several occasions laughing aloud. The book can be enjoyed on several levels, as Bennett covers serious, timely themes about the value, pleasure and role of reading and the way that fits into the modern world. You can derive from it what you will. It's an easy, fun read, well worth the rather minimal time required for the 120 page novella.
MinnesotaReader More than 1 year ago
Alan Bennett has brilliantly crafted a creative testimonial to the life-changing power of reading. This captivating novella cleverly imagines the happenings following Queen Elizabeth II's accidental discovery of the library's bookmobile on the castle grounds. She reads one book...then another...and soon she is more deeply devoted to her books than she is to her public duties. Excuses are made to accomodate her passionate reading habit, and staff members began to resent her literary pursuit. Eventually, she begins recording notes and musings in a notebook. A laugh-out-loud ending completes this charming book. Mr. Bennett has written a delightful tale about discovering the wonderful world of literature and how it can happily change lives, even the Queen of England's! He has beautifully portrayed a passionate reader...always yearning to get back to one's book. I could certainly relate to the Queen's obsession with books. As with her, finding the time to read is a priority and very often reading interferes with my everyday duties. I have also experienced resentment from others when I branched out to do something different. I absolutely loved this delightfully entertaining book. It left me reflecting on how reading has influenced my life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have given this book as a gift at least six times, always to rave reviews. It has laugh-out-loud moments, it's engrossing, and for the two hours it takes to read one finds oneself very much elsewhere. Good for anyone who really loves to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Her Majesty the Queen takes up a new hobby, reading and she finds it drains her of enthusiasm of anything else. Reading becomes her addiction an addiction that causes her to ignore everything and everyone. Her devotion to reading disrupts her family and household and they scheme to get her to stop reading so much when as suddenly as she began reading she slows down but what they don¿t know is she¿s writing. She started writing after coming to the realization that she had no voice. She throws a party and makes an announcement so tremendous everyone pauses in shock.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This delightful modern fairy tale casts HRM Elizabeth II as the heroine who, while pursuing an errant corgi, stumbles late into a mobile library and a life of reading, thereby disconcerting her husband, relatives, the powers that be in the palace, and the Prime Minister to name a few. Easily gulped in one happy sitting, this book is the perfect gift for the truly addicted readers in your life. I suspect many will have the same reaction as the first person I gave a copy, who said, 'Don't you wish it were true?' Well, yes. One does.
CharJones2525 11 days ago
Lit as Catalyst This witty novella about Queen Elizabeth II’s newfound love of books captivates the reader. Beloved Writer Penned by an adored British playwrite and actor, it enthralls from start ‘til the surprise ending. Growing TBR Pile One could compile a worthy to-read list just from the mentioned books. Plus the Queen’s transformation through literature warms the heart. Shocking Yet I do love her firing of handlers who try to control her. And the last scene entrances as she reveals a stunning plan to morph from reader to writer. Brit Love Finished easily in one sitting, this quirky novella is highly recommended for Anglophiles who dig royalty and high satire. Cheers!
smg5775 More than 1 year ago
The Queen discovers reading and becomes an avid reader. Her staff is upset. She's not supposed to read. Where they used to know what questions she would ask and would brief people on how to respond, now the conversation could go anywhere. She used to take suggestions from the young man who introduced her to the bookmobile that stopped at the palace. He leaves and she is on her own. Then she discovers she has her own library in the palace. I loved this little short read. It was funny. It was perfect. It was so much fun to see the Queen sucked into the books she read and the reactions from others who are not readers. Absolutely delightful!
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
[The Uncommon Reader] by Alan BennettWhat if the Queen of England started reading? That is the premise of this novella, which begins with the Queen visiting a bookmobile and borrowing a book out of politeness. While she doesn't love the book, she does come back and discovers a new love that could change her life (not to mention drive her advisers mad).Though an interesting idea, I felt a little left behind when it came to English politics. I had a really hard time following the time progression in this story, but the Queen seems to read very fast and have a lot of free time. She very quickly moves from reading Ivy Compton-Burnett and finding it dry to reading Proust and loving it. I had trouble buying how quickly she loved the Great Works of Literature. Oh, and did I want to talk back about some of her likes and dislikes when it came to that! Not a bad read; I may have enjoyed this fictional discussion of reading more if I had not read If on a Winter's Night a Traveler first.
-Eva- on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fast read, which hits on some interesting truths about reading. Mainly, though, it's a quirky fantasy about what would happen if the most dutiful person in the world, the Queen of England, decided to, instead of her regular duties, indulge in a personal hobby. Bennett really succeeds in catching the voice of Elizabeth II and this is, for me, the main source of humor: she really talks like that! I wouldn't call it deep literature, but it's definitely worth reading. I especially loved the part when she stops caring about her dress - just the image of the Queen in an old cardie cracked me up! I would love to know if she's read it (and what she thought)!!
echomikeromeo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a cute book, but it's ultimately a little ridiculously cute. I found the premise a little too improbable to be particularly engaging, and as someone who has a less-than-favorable view of the monarchy I probably wasn't exactly the book's target audience.
inkdrinker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a delightful excursion into an imagined life of Queen Elizabeth II, but better yet it is an examination into what books/reading can offer a person. When the Queen accidentally finds herself confronted with the power of books she nearly loses control. She finds herself immersed in the addictive power of reading. Books broaden her world and confront her with new ideas and landscapes. One cannot but help be attached to this queen who because of her rabid reading is even suspected of mental illness.Alan Bennett has once again proven can make social commentary with humor and still create strong and sympathetic characters. His humor may seem dry to some, but the absurdity he creates is hilarious and sends a powerful message about the magic of the written word. This is all accomplished without freight train of Mr. Bennett¿s ideas pounding into the reader¿s brain. That¿s a great accomplishment in a world of books which often allow the ideas the author wishes to express to get in the way of the story. Aside from all this, I'm a sucker for books about books and reading.
peoppenheimer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was sweet and funny, with a serious undercurrent of criticism of all the ways we pretend to read and do not. Briefing is the opposite of reading. Summaries give us the illusion of having read; reading draws us in and we need to work our way through another world. Each of us is the Queen when we read; eventually, we must abdicate our thrones in order to write our ways into our own worlds. But that is my own heavy reading of a light book, with enough wit to delight and enough bite to keep the reader awake.
diggy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully witty and very perceptive. A little gem.
goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I think some of the British humor was lost on me, I still enjoyed this short read about the Queen of England discovering the joy of literature late in her life. It was funny, though again I think some of it went over my head. I thought the characters were well developed for it being only a 120 pages. Nicely written, not a word was spared.
punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful little novella about how reading changes a life, in this case the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
jrbeach on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I first "read" it as an audio book, read by the author, a few months ago. I asked for the review copy because I wanted to have a print copy for myself. I've already bought several copies for Christmas presents.It can be enjoyed for itself, just as a funny story (I kept picturing Nigel Hawthorn and the rest of the cast from the BBC sit coms Yes Minister,Yes Prime Minister) or as a deeper reflection of the importance and relevance of reading and writing. I had to keep reminding myself it is a work of fiction, and not to assume the opinions the queen expresses are truly her opinions (tho they may be her views!). Even if they are only Bennett's views, I always like to read about reading.
arowe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although this was an entertaining simple little book, I just didn't really get the punchline. Was there a higher purspose for this book that just went right over my head? I just can't figure out what the author was trying to say (if anything).
benjclark on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The queen of England reads. This does not seem to have been true for a very long time, but for a while now. She is also a big fan of her local bookmobile. Except in the UK it is called a mobile library. This short story leads up to a fine, literate ending full of hope. A very nice read. I read it comfortably in one sitting and can recommend it to bibliophiles everywhere.
TadAD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A pleasant novel that will provide a hour or so of entertainment. From the humorous beginning to the slightly surprising ending, it's a gentle and amusing story...with a message, but not preachy about it. Most LibraryThing members will certainly understand the Queen's actions.
abbylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amusing novella about what happens when the Queen of England discovers the pleasure of reading. It starts innocently with an inadvertent visit to the mobile library parked outside. At first the Queen borrows a book to be polite, but she soon discovers a voracious appetite for all kinds of books. And the more she reads, the more she finds her own perceptions changing, much to the detriment of many government officials she deals with. This would make a great gift for the reader in your life.
elmyra on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read this literally in one sitting, laughing out loud every other page. It's wonderful.
sanddancer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Just as the Queen in this book discovers her love of reading, this book reawakened my love of books. I'd been struggling to read much but this was such a light, easy read, that I'd finished it in under 2 hours. It reminded me, through its own words and its descriptions of other books, why I love reading. My only disappointment is that is so short - I could have easily have read another 100 pages of the same.
stubbyfingers on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I wasn't impressed with this novella. The Queen of England, a few years shy of 80, stumbles into mobile library while walking her dogs and checks out a book out of politeness. She then discovers that she enjoys reading. A lot. Nobody else reads as much as she does and everyone thinks her reading is a bad idea. They try to discourage her from reading but can't stop her because she is, after all, the Queen. That's pretty much it. The story isn't fleshed out much from there. Cute idea, I guess, and it's kind fun to think of the Queen as being one of us readaholics, but all in all not very interesting.
kateleversuch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I started this book this afternoon, and finished it this evening. This is the first Alan Bennett book I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here is the Amazon synopsis for The Uncommon Reader:The Uncommon Reader is none other than HM the Queen who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely (J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett, and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people such as the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world, and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny.I really enjoyed this book. I think Bennett looks at the Queen from a different point of view, like an ordinary person with a great passion, reading. He takes the time to assess how this would change her attitude and her priorities. I found myself relating to her (the Queen, I know!) as she faced people who don't like reading and understanding how she felt when she believed jobs boring in comparison to reading.I like how Bennett portrayed all the characters, to the common kitchen boy to the pompous prime minister and I just loved the way he assesses books and what they mean to us e.g. how they can be an extension of ourselves.As an avid reader I found myself getting cross with people who found the books a problem, and I liked that. I enjoy a book where I get emotionally involved, and this is a book where that happened.There were times when what I read was a tad boring, but that may be the fault of my ignorance in terms of certain books he mentioned.A good book and a quick, enjoyable read.8/10
mhallville on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Queen Elizabeth II, quite by accident, discovers a love of books. Bennett is as wry and droll here as he is in his plays. This line, from the 90 year old royal chief of staff Sir Claude to the new Kiwi royal chief of staff:"I've served three queens and got on with them all. The only queen I could never get on with was Field Marshal Montgomery."Lots of funny moments watching the Queen discover her joy of reading. She is pictured reading Henry James, mumbling to herself "Do get on with it."