Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett is such a National Treasure (TM) that almost anything he writes – scraps from his diaries, books of movies of plays, TV scripts – is guaranteed to sell. That must be why, after publishing his previous stories such as The Clothes They Stood Up In and Father, Father, Burning Bright! in paperback for £3.99 each, his publishers this time have gone into Right Royal Rip-Off mode and publish his new story, The Uncommon Reader, in hardback at £11. That’s almost 10p a page.

It’s a straightforward tale: Queen Elizabeth II discovers, through some boisterous activity by her corgis, a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace one day. Through the politeness that has been bred into her, she borrows a book, but doesn’t much like it (it’s Ivy Compton-Burnett).

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: preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.

But then she spots a Nancy Mitford, recognises the name – and the loose family connections – and is hooked by The Pursuit of Love. The Queen becomes a reader.

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.

This leads to some light comedy where the Queen, for the first time in her life, begins to become resentful at performing her duties, as they keep her away from her books. She worries about catching up with the classics, not to mention the modern voices of writers she has known purely through granting them honours (and now regrets not having read any of their books at the time, so they could have exchanged more than the usual smalltalk).

The frustration felt by Her Majesty and the equal and opposite irritation by her equerries and family at her persistent tendency to have her nose in a book, is something that all avid readers will recognise. Bennett also finds time for small observations on the value of reading something for oneself rather than being told about it (“Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up”).

There is also a neat coda to the story, in a scene where the Queen gives an address to members of the British cabinet (including asking for a show of hands on who has read Proust). Bennett’s touch has not deserted him, but the slightness of the contents – I’d set aside an hour at most, inclusive of thinking time – doesn’t really match the weight of the price tag.


  1. It does sound an expensive read, which is why I am going to try to make the time to listen to our “Treasure” reading it on Radio 4 – 3.30pm each day next week I think. However, I would rather pay a lot for a good cup of espresso than 50p for instant catering rubbish!! Thanks to the Booker, have been introduced to your and dovegreyreader’s sites.

  2. Well quite Katinka – I would never really object to paying over the odds for a really good book – if it was a really good book, it wouldn’t be over the odds I suppose – but this felt like a cashing-in job for what is really a rather slight volume. I’m delighted you’ve discovered me (and dgr) and hope you stick around.

  3. Slight? Slight? The effect of reading on humans? How books can change lives even of those most stiff? Have I become a solemn fool and find important messages everywhere?
    I disagree.
    I paid the price rather gladly. Most witty texts (good quality fun) are thought of as shallow. Why ever for?

  4. You’re right carmen, humorous fiction does get overlooked somewhat, but not (I hope) by me. I’d happily defend Wodehouse, Waugh, Jerome, A.G. McDonnell and plenty more. I am a firm admirer of Bennett too. But what can I say? While the ideas you mention are indeed big stuff, I don’t think The Uncommon Reader was either a particularly brilliant take on the subject (though the premise is an excellent idea) or Bennett at his best. But I see with the recent paperback publication that most newspapers have loved it all over again, so I’m happy to accept that I’m out of step on this one. Plus I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, begrudge you your delight in it!

  5. There is also the theme of someone who has never been allowed a voice deciding after many years that they want one, and being willing to go to great lengths to get it. Isn’t that basically the core of why many aspiring writers feel driven to write?

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