The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon ReaderA Novella
Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

The titular reader is Queen Elizabeth II, and I finished this 117-page delight in one sitting, fortified by a few cups of Yorkshire Tea. The novella begins with the Queen’s corgis scampering into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, and Her Majesty herself walking in to retrieve them. This apotheosis of exemplary behavior feels it would be impolite not to borrow a book from the librarian, a Mr. Hutchings — and so falls the first step on a road the Queen never expected to travel.

In his marvelous way, author Alan Bennett (best known outside the UK for his award-winning play The History Boys) parlays the Queen’s first encounter with the librarian (and shelves laden with books for the taking) into an explanation of why the royals rarely settle down and read for pleasure. The excerpt below follows the Queen’s remark to the librarian that she has “never had much time for reading.”

“Though now that one is here I suppose one should borrow a book. Is there anything you would recommend?”

Mr. Hutchings smiled helpfully. “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; preferences 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!”

Like the Queen, the reader is taken to places unforeseen, and you’ll happily find yourself bursting out laughing from time to time. You’ll also get a peep at Palace staff high and low and marvel at author Bennett’s dexterity in weaving a tale.

The characters, too, are memorable. Among them are young Norman Seakins, who works in the Palace kitchens and fetches books from the mobile library for the Queen (a wise career move)… Sir Kevin Scatchard, the Queen”s private secretary and introduced by Bennett as “an over-conscientious New Zealander”… and Sir Claude Pollington, who began life a the Palace as a page for the Queen’s father, George V, and is now decrepitude writ large. An intriguing lot indeed!

The novella ends with a delicious surprise, the perfect finale for a book Anglophiles will want to read more than once.

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