Alan Bennett Ph.D. - The Uncommon Reader: A Novella

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_The Uncommon Reader:_ An amusing 'what-if?' story

Nov 22, 2008
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Smart, witty prose in spots.

Cons:Becomes unbearable towards the end.

The Bottom Line: Satire always sells well, but this one left a bad taste behind. Read at your own risk.


This one had been lurking for a while on my Mt. To-Be-Read, and last night I was looking for something to lightly amuse me on a very cold night. Being the inveterate Royal-watcher that I am, I knew that this was one novella that I needed to read, so I settled in with a good, stiff cup of tea and started to read.

Alan Bennett, a very successful author, takes on England's monarchy in this cheerful little tale of subversion and literary adventures. With spare prose, he poses the question of what if The Queen, England's current monarch and head of the Commonwealth, turned into a reader? And we're talking not of those many documents that she reviews in her special red boxes but novels? And as with readers who come to love their books, what if she turned into a passionate, compulsive reader?

Such is the premise here, when the Queen's troop of corgis take off after a van fitted out as a lending library. In an attempt to be polite, she checks out a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett. And she meets a young man who works in the Palace as a kitchen skivvy, Norman Seakins, who actually does read books. Gradually, the two develop a sort-of friendship, and Norman incurs the jealousy of palace staff, and the Queen's knowledge of literature grows apace with poor Norman's rise to becoming as it were, the Queen's Reader.

Soon enough, the Queen starts to resent her official duties as Monarch, preferring to spend her time reading -- and that natural corollary to being bookish, thinking about her reading. Some think she's getting senile, what with the notebooks full of her thoughts and scribbles, and the eventual chaos that erupts when the outside world learns that she's a reader. Books, not flowers, are being presented to her on royal walkabouts, and slowly there is a growing revolution growing in the palace.

This rather tongue-in-cheek story had me chuckling in spots, thoughtful in others, but at the end, disappointed. While I did enjoy Mr. Bennett's use of very clever prose, it was the ending that finally ruined the book for me. Too, Mr. Bennett seems to be taking a backhanded swipe at everyone who doesn't read, at least doesn't read what he likes, and especially at the institution of monarchy itself. By the time I got to the end of this one, I was heartily bored, and just glad to see the story end.

It's good for an hour or two of reading -- it's less than 120 pages in length, and printed in a small format -- but I won't be wasting any of my time on a reread. Somehow I think that Britain's Royals are not this vapid or befuddled, and while I do know that this is satire, it just didn't feel right or too believable.

Depending on your tolerance for the silly, or the weird, or mockery of conservative establishment, this might suit. Or it might not. One never knows.

Overall, three stars. Somewhat recommended.

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella
Alan Bennett
2007; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-28096-7



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