Contrary to my initial fears, Alan Bennett’s delightful novella, The Uncommon Reader, provided plenty for my book group to talk about.
The Uncommon Reader is an homage to reading which starts out with the Queen of England stumbling upon a bookmobile on the Palace grounds while walking her Corgis. The Queen decides to check out a book, and finds herself enamored with reading to the detriment of her duties and the disdain of her staff.
We started out my talking about the premise. One reader said that Bennett made it real. Not that the Queen probably isn’t a reader at all, but that he makes the act of her absorbtion and its consequences so real. Another remarked that this book may not have been possible or been so well received without the recent film, “The Queen” with Helen Mirren, which made Queen Elizabeth II a more sympathetic character than she had been viewed since Princess Diana’s death.
We also talked a lot about how Bennett presents reading. Reading as an exclusionary act. Reading as looked down upon by others. And how the Queen discovers that her subjects are mostly not as well-read as she swiftly becomes.
But the Queen is an intriguing subject in that her growing interest in reading is viewed as a threat to a life of duty and ceremony. But when the Queen comes to the conclusion that reading is not doing, whereas writing is the opposite, many readers balked at this notion. Even though the Queen’s conclusion provides a surprise ending.
We ended our discussion by pondering whether reading makes us better people. Some disputed the word ‘better.’ Reading can expand people’s minds, expand their empathy and knowledge of the world. Reading can change your perceptions of the world and the people around you. Someone noted that literature, unlike other art forms, goes deep into the psyche and explores the internal world of the reader–it changes people subtly, unconsciously in ways that a painting and even a film may not.
One thing I wish I had concluded the discussion with is more of an exploration of the title itself. Of course, it is a pun on commoners and the Queen being uncommon. But the book itself also celebrates the readers who truly immerse themselves in literature, who let themselves be changed and expanded. And my book group is certainly those I would count as uncommon readers. I am proud and grateful to find myself among them.