The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Publication Date: September 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 128 pages
“Previously she wouldn’t have cared what the maid thought or that she might have hurt her feelings, only now she did and coming back to the chair she wondered why. That this access of consideration might have had something to do with books and even with the perpetually irritating Henry James did not at the moment occur to her” 
Alan Bennett has written a delightfully humorous and thought-provoking novella that explores the effect that reading can have in a person’s life and how it is perceived by others. The Queen, who has been doing her thing for the last 82 years, ventures out for a walk with her wild and crazy dogs and comes upon a mobile book cart at the edge of the royal estate. Ostensibly she goes over to the library cart to apologize for all the commotion and noise that her dogs are causing, but once there she feels that she must leave with at least one book so as not to slight the clerk working in the book van. Even though the book that she chooses is less than captivating, she visits the cart the next week to return her book, winds up borrowing another and thusly her love for reading is born. Norman, whom she has meets the first time while browsing the stacks, works in the kitchen, but is quickly promoted to the Queen’s errand boy as he advises her in her book selection and provides a discussion partner for the Queen as everyone else, including the dogs, hate her new hobby! Hijinks ensue as nearly all involve try to deter the Queen from her new passion as she steadfastly clings on. The plots to get the Queen to stop reading and how she deals with them are funny!
This was such an interesting little book to read because Bennett so deftly explores, through the Queen’s newly acquired habit, reading and the many ways that becoming involved in books can be absorbing and ultimately life changing. As the Queen reads, she is able to open herself up to understanding a wealth of human emotion that influences how she see and interacts with those around her, which she had not done before. Reading offers her a richer experience and a new way to see a world that she had thought of purely in terms of duty, and allows her to escape the feeling that everything she does is prescribed and rote. It is interesting too that the book explores the fact that while it can be an eye-opening experience for those doing the reading, it can also be viewed as solitary and potentially isolating to those around you who might not understand what you are getting from the experience and the drive to spend every spare moment with a book. There were so many great questions that I would love to think about and explore more, so I am sure I will be referring back to this little book not only as fiction, but as a reference of sorts.
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What do you think? How do your friends and family perceive your reading? How do you feel about the way that they feel about your reading? Are there times when they try to get you away from reading? If so, what do you do?