A review of “The Uncommon Reader”, by Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber. Profile Books.
Find it at your local library!
Her Majesty has an epiphany. A chance encounter with a mobile library and its librarian, who happens to work in her kitchens, leads her into borrowing a book. Following his advice and guidance she promptly comes back for more. Very soon she is hooked, although she would not really approve of the use of slang.
One thing leads to another. She promotes the librarian to her inner circle in order to advise her on her journey into the world of literature, and she finds the discovery of books, albeit late in life, to be her new passion. The affairs of state, predicable attendances at events with their predictable conversations, become tedious compared to the excitement of delving into her latest title.
From pulp fiction to Proust, Her Majesty cannot tear herself away from reading, up to the point of hiding a book under a cushion in the royal carriage and perfecting the art of simultaneously waving to the crowd while keeping her eyes fixed on the latest page. She becomes so engrossed that she starts to turn up late for appointments in her calendar and appears to be losing interest in royal engagements.
And when she does go to open the latest swimming pool or other such function, she swaps her pre-planned mundane questions to officials for inquiries about their reading habits. She soon learns that many of her attendants and advisors, up to and including top government ministers, are basically a bunch of Philistines.
Now, this does not go unnoticed by her attendants in the royal court. To say that there is consternation would be an understatement. They are not amused. One is just not herself these days. And it soon comes to the point when they conspire to keep her way from her beloved books. When she goes on a royal visit to Canada she arranges for a crate of books to be sent on ahead, after all she has seen the Niagara Falls three times already. But an attendant arranges for them to be misdirected and they do not arrive.
However, it takes more than this and other little plots to turn Her Majesty away from her love of reading; after all she is the head of state. In the end the only thing that does distract her is the awareness of her own mortality and of the passive nature of reading. The realisation slowly dawns on her that when she finally goes, all that would remain of her is locked into the remembrance of others. It was high time she put pen to paper, created her own legacy and set the record straight.
She recalls all the meetings with all the unsavoury characters from around the world that she has had to endure, not least her current prime minister (clue, this book was written in 2006). She decides to tell her own story, to tell all, and in her own words . . . .
Written in Bennett’s engaging, subtle and witty style, this short book can be seen in one respect as a championing of literature and a defence of libraries and librarians. Free reading and free writing are at the heart of English, and of language in general; something distinct from the one-dimensional, skill-based literacy so beloved of the business sector. One does not chastise Picasso for painting all his eyes in the wrong place, Her Majesty might have remarked.
The Uncommon Reader is a justification of all our work to defend and extend the library service. Libraries are about more than books of course, and there is no going back to the days before social media. But free access to the written word, modern, not so modern and ancient, is a hallmark of a cultured and civilised society. The ability to write freely, artistically and critically about literature, culture, business, sport and other social matters past and present, might not go down well with the local Prevent officer, but that is the real soul of literacy and literature.
And as for regarding all the difficulties of preserving a comprehensive and efficient library service in our age of austerity, the difficulties that we hear so much about? As Bernie Sanders might say, “To hell with them!”