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Description - The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

'Oh Norman,' said the Queen, 'the prime minister doesn't seem to have read any Hardy. Perhaps you could find him one of our old paperbacks on his way out.' Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library's weekly visits to the palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen's literary odyssey to a close. Subversive and highly enjoyable, The Uncommon Reader offers the perfect argument for reading, written by one of its great champions, Alan Bennett.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9781846681332
ISBN-10: 1846681332
Format: Paperback
(178mm x 111mm x 10mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Profile Books Ltd
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
Publish Date: 3-Jul-2008
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Book Reviews - The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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Book Review: Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett - Reviewed by (11 Jan 2010)

It was, as Alan Bennett tells us, the fault of the dogs: the "bloody dogs" as Prince Philip was famously overheard calling them. And the result was that the Queen - she who didn't have hobbies because she was "a doer" - suddenly took up reading. Which caused all sorts of problems.

It all began because the Corgis discovered a City of Westminster travelling library van in the palace yard and made such a fuss that the Queen felt bound to go in and apologize. There, she met Mr Hutchings, the driver/librarian and Norman, a palace kitchen-hand, and she discovered that she was allowed to borrow up to six books. Being polite, she borrows one, and although this is not very inspiring reading, when she returns it the following week she borrows another - just so that Mr Hutchings does not feel he has failed. And with this second book, she is hooked.

Young Norman, who is coerced into offering reading suggestions (although his own reading is guided by whether an author is gay or not) is soon promoted to be the Queen's library assistant. And although Westminster City Council cancels the visits of the library van, the Queen finds other sources of books, including, occasionally, books from one of her own libraries. Through her reading, she develops a new perspective on life. And instead of the usual small-talk, for which those who meet her are carefully prepared, she begins to ask visiting functionaries, and the members of the public that she speaks to at official functions, what they are reading. It is all very uncharacteristic, unexpected and, often, embarrassing. No-one knows quite what she will do next.

Alan Bennett tells this story with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He has great fun with the Queen's reactions to various authors ("Oh do get on!", she exclaims when reading Henry James for the first time) and her sharp, intelligent wit in the midst of all the formal duties and the stuffy meetings that she has to suffer is a delight. Prince Philip adds his dry comments and the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury are each confounded by literary questions. Altogether, this is a little gem of a book: short, funny, subversive and most enjoyable.

If the Queen reads it (and undoubtedly she is already an uncommon reader), will it be "Arise Sir Alan" or "Off with his head!". Or will she think up a more sophisticated and subtle revenge, such as that which she devised for her Private Secretary, Sir Kevin, in the book? "It was the block but it took longer", as Alan Bennett remarks of this particular piece of Royal come-uppance. Let's just hope that Alan Bennett survives and flourishes and keeps on writing.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2008

Ann Skea Website and Ted Hughes pages:

Author Biography - Alan Bennett

The film adaptation of the hit play The Lady in the Van is out now in the UK.Alan Bennett has been one of our leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His television series Talking Heads has become a modern-day classic, as have many of his works for the stage. At the National Theatre, London, The History Boys won numerous awards including Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards for Best Play, an Olivier for the Best New Play and the South Bank Award. His play The History Boys was the National Theatre's most successful production ever. His collection of prose Writing Home was a number one bestseller. Untold Stories won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography, 2006. Recent works of fiction are The Uncommon Reader and Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.

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