Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Review: The Uncommon Reader
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Summary (from Booklist): One day the queen takes inadvertent advantage of a bookmobile that happens to arrive at a Buckingham Palace back door; she rather accidentally borrows a book. 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. As surprising to herself as to those who know her, the queen develops into a dedicated, avid reader of serious literature, and the court and her government are sent reeling by this new royal practice—as well as by her newfound knowledge about all kinds of things. When she turns from the joy of reading to a desire to write, the consequences are jolting.
My thoughts: This just didn't do it for me. I know it was supposed to be satirical, but I just couldn't get past the fact that I'm sure the Queen is a reader. I can't believe that a woman of her age with her education wouldn't have read, for example, Henry James (one of the many authors she "discovers" in this book). I just couldn't get past it - perhaps I'm an even bigger fan of the Queen than I realized!
There were some funny bits (the fact of her wandering into the bookmobile, the talk of her "peripheral grandchildren," how she knows a lot of the authors because she's knighted them, and how she'll bring up books with any random person) and it was interesting to see how reading could be seen as elitist (there's a passage where the Queen says something like "But surely most people can read?" and the Prime Minister or whoever it is replies that people can, but most people don't).
But between the Queen being a non-reader and reading turning her into someone who starts to neglect her duties and because reading is seen as an annoying habit by everyone around her, I just wasn't having it.
I actually searched all over the Net for someone who agreed with me and had a very hard time, most people think it's completely delightful. I did find one Waterstone's bookseller, though, who only gave it one star and said:
"I'm not convinced by Alan Bennett. To be honest, I never have been. And this only adds fuel to my doubtful fire. I just can't see what the fuss is all about. To me, this reads like a rather badly written and thought-out children's book. The Queen goes to a mobile library and meets a skinny boy called Norman, who despite being a mere kitchen hand appears to have the combined intellects of Will Self, Stephen Fry and Martin Amis. Still, he's very popular so I guess it must be just me who doesn't get it. (sigh). "
I don't think I'm convinced by Alan Bennett, either.