Friday, February 3, 2017

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2007)

Last week, I listened to a Guardian books podcast ("books" always pronounced like the American pronunciation of "dukes" i.e. "dooks").  featuring Alan Bennett reading from his diary, published in the fall. His diary entries were humorous and witty, and his narrative voice was much fun.   I had just finished my latest audio book (which I enjoyed) and saw that his book The Uncommon Reader was available for streaming from one of my five libraries for which I have cards.  Not only was it available, but Alan Bennett himself was the reader.    I remembered liking The Uncommon Reader; now, after listening to the podcast, I have a better idea of who Alan Bennett is and how he is sort of national literary treasure in the UK.

My liking The Uncommon Reader has remained unchanged; it's a strong little book, satirical but not in a bitter way.   Although nominally about Queen Elizabeth II, Bennett is really writing about what it means to be a reader, and also eventually, what it means to be a writer.  QEII picks up the habit of reading late in life, and it completely changes her personality and the way she views the world and other people.  Reading, the queen realizes, is a muscle, and the more you work that muscle, the stronger and better it gets.  Those around the queen are aghast at her new found love of books, and the descriptive passages of their varying degrees of annoyance, alarm, and sometimes disgust reflect the trials and tribulations of a true blue reader.  What happens to the queen has happened to us; we empathize with her plight; we get angry that those in her life don't understand her new passion, because we the reader have had that same passion for our entire lives, and sometimes to our detriment.  The queen likes reading better than her job as queen, even though (on paper at least) this might be the most enriching, glamorous job in the world.  Reading is even better than being queen.

Bennett is neither soppy nor sentimental about this message though.  He's sharp as a knife, a knife that occasionally cuts both ways.  I love Bennett's voice - both his narrative voice (a rare writer that reads his work as well as he writes) and his satirical writing voice.  This, however, was satire with a heart.

I would love to think readers who don't particularly like reading about the Royal Family would enjoy this book.  I think they would.  There is so much in this about being a reader, the joys and the troubles of reading books, the transformative power of reading.


The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read this book the old fashioned way once before; this time I listened to the audio version, which I checked out via streaming audio on one of my five library cards. Nominally, the uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who late in life has picked up the (to some, nasty) habit of reading books. As reading is wont to do (research has shown this lately), this completely changes her personality, the way she views herself, the world, and definitely other people. Reading, the queen soon realizes, is a muscle, and the more you work that muscle, the stronger and better it gets. However those aforementioned other people, as Bennett loving and satirically details, are to varying degrees annoyed, disgusted, and outraged. A chunk of this small volume is devoted to the other people laying roadblocks in the way of the queen's reading. Gentle hilarity ensues; this is not a laugh out loud book. I say nominally because Bennett is actually speaking to all of us uncommon readers out there in the world; it's a love letter to people who carry books in their handbag and can't wait until people stop talking so they can dive back into their latest novel, or whatever it is they are reading. The nonsense the queen endures from non-readers (or worse, the guilt stricken non-readers, the worst kind of non-reader) is the same nonsense all true blue readers, at one time or another in their lives, have to put up with. We empathize greatly with her plight. Like most of us, even this old librarian, the queen likes reading better than her job. Unlike us, the queen is supposed to lead a rich, enriching, glamorous life. Is Alan Bennett actually telling that reading books is even better than being queen? If he is, he's doing so in a manner that is neither soppily sentimental or educational poster-ish; he's a crisp, funny writer whose delivery is sharp as a tack. He reads his own book here too - the rare writer who reads aloud as well as he writes. This entire audio was a treat, one people who love to read should definitely take up and try. I suggest the audio over the physical book!


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