Reading guide for The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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The Uncommon Reader

A Novella

By Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2007,
    128 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2008,
    128 pages.

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What play on words did you detect in the novella’s title? In the world of literature, how are commoners defined? What ironies exist in the mobile library’s intended purpose?

  2. Early on, the Queen tells Norman that she reads because “one has a duty to find out what people are like.” The Queen later says to Sir Kevin, “One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.” What accounts for this transformation? Do you read because of a sense of duty, or purely for pleasure (as Norman does)?

  3. What books were you reminded of as the Queen’s literary obsession began causing her to shirk her royal duties and pay less attention to her family? When have you preferred to lose yourself in fiction rather than confront reality?

  4. Many critics and scholars have debated the “correct” way to interpret literature, ranging from those who scorn any political or sociological interpretations to those who scorn interpretation itself. How does the Queen seem to interpret what she reads? What determines whether she likes a book?

  5. The Uncommon Reader contains references to dozens of authors and characters, including Joanna Trollope and Harry Potter, writers affiliated with the University of East Anglia (such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan), Alice Munro and Henry James. How did the Queen’s entourage discuss such a broad range with her? What are the implications of name games designed to judge a person by his or her taste in books? What does one’s reading list say about oneself?

  6. Would this tale have been as effective if the public leader at its center were not a monarch? Could a democratically elected ruler have generated as much humor? What makes the English Queen ideal for this scenario?

  7. What comic elements are at work in the friendship between Norman and the Queen? What sort of literary adviser is he? What would you have advised her to read?

  8. What is the effect of reading a novella—more substantial than a short story but not as lengthy as a novel? How did the author’s triumphs as a playwright and television writer shape the storytelling in The Uncommon Reader?

  9. What is the effect of reading a book about reading books? How might the fictional Queen respond to The Uncommon Reader?

  10. In her conversation with the university vice-chancellor and the creative writing professor, the Queen debates whether reading softens a person up while writing does the reverse. Do you agree that writing makes us tough but reading makes us soft? How does the Queen handle her transition from reader to writer?

  11. A main premise of the novella is that the Queen has no hobbies of any kind; hobbies, we are told, imply preferences, which must be avoided because they can lead to the exclusion of various populations. Is this an accurate portrayal of public life in general? Can you name any public figures who not only admit to being avid readers but who also engage in public dialogues advocating books, or who advocate controversial books or books written by marginalized populations?

  12. In the closing scenes, the Queen begins to describe herself candidly as the kingdom’s “deodorant,” forced to passively oversee or tout dreadful public-policy decisions. In what ways did reading help her arrive at this realization? Is her final decision regarding the throne necessary to launch her career as a writer?

  13. In what ways does The Uncommon Reader enhance your experience of other works by Alan Bennett? How might the novella’s Queen have responded to the students in The History Boys, and vice versa?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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