Summary and book reviews of The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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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Book Summary

The author of the Tony Award winner The History Boys, Alan Bennett is one of Britain’s best-loved literary voices. With The Uncommon Reader, he brings us a playful homage to the written word, imagining a world in which literature becomes a subversive bridge between powerbrokers and commoners. By turns cheeky and charming, the novella features the Queen herself as its protagonist. When her yapping corgis lead her to a mobile library, Her Majesty develops a new obsession with reading. She finds herself devouring works by a tantalizing range of authors, from the Brontë sisters to Jean Genet. With a young member of the palace kitchen staff guiding her choices, it’s not long before the Queen begins to develop a new perspective on the world - one that alarms her closest advisers and tempts her to make bold new decisions. Brimming with the mischievous wit that has garnered acclaim for Bennett on both sides of the Atlantic, The Uncommon Reader is a delightful celebration of books and writers, and the readers who sustain them.

Excerpt
The Uncommon Reader

At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.’

‘Ah,’ said the president. ‘Oui.’

The ‘Marseillaise’ and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.

‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,’ and she took up her soup spoon, ‘was he as good?’

Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. ...

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 ...
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    BookBrowse Awards
    2008

Reviews

BookBrowse

It is immaterial whether in real life the Queen is an avid reader or not (one is told she's not) - her perceived character is merely the foil through which Bennett can poke some heartfelt fun and take the reader on a Queen's-eye whistle-stop tour through the best and worst of English literature.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Sunday Times (UK) - Lindsay Duguid

For all its hilarity The Uncommon Reader has a heartfelt tone. It offers a lament on old age, some thoughts on reticence and a backward glance at a life wasted.

The Spectator - Sam Leith

The way Bennett burlesques the world is so entirely his own that by now there should be a word to identify it. Forget making him a peer of the realm. Let’s give him his own adjective. ‘Bennettesque’ is ugly, and ‘Bennettish’, though I’ve been forced to use it for clarity, sounds altogether too querulous. The Queen is poised to inherit ‘Elizabethan’. I think 'Alan' would do.

Observer

...a masterpiece of comic brevity.

Publishers Weekly

There are lessons packed in here, but Bennett doesn't wallop readers with them. It's a fun little book.

Library Journal

Though the book is at times annoyingly snobbish and harping that people do not read enough, the unusual story line keeps readers engrossed.

The Times (UK)

An exquisitely produced jewel of a book...[but] beneath the tasteful gilt-and-beige cover seethes a savagely Swiftian indignation against stupidity, Philistinism and arrogance in public places, and a passionate argument for the civilising power of art.

O, The Oprah Magazine - David Gates

Bennett’s deadpan, self-deprecating humor translates perfectly.

USA Today - Bob Minzesheimer

The Uncommon Reader is a political and literary satire. But it's also a lovely lesson in the redemptive and subversive power of reading and how one book can lead to another and another and another. The queen discovers that reading "was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed."

Los Angeles Times - Maud Newton

The Uncommon Reader is a celebration of both reading and its counterpart, independent thinking. In this age of corporate politics, Bennett suggests, even a monarch may have greater potential for empathy with her fellow man than does the machine of democratic government.

New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

In recounting this story of a ruler who becomes a reader, a monarch who’d rather write than reign, Mr. Bennett has written a captivating fairy tale. It’s a tale that's as charming as the old Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn movie Roman Holiday, and as keenly observed as Stephen Frears's award-winning movie The Queen — a tale that showcases its author’s customary élan and keen but humane wit.

The Christian Science Monitor - Marjorie Kehe

The staggeringly prodigious Bennett, an award-winning playwright (The History Boys), bestselling novelist, and memoirist, has fun with the writers and books the queen relishes (and doesn't). Avid readers will enjoy his playful erudition in this entertaining reminder as to why we read and write. Here's hoping the multifaceted Bennett never puts down his pen.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

Uncommon little novel
This is a jolly little fairy tale (I had to keep reminding myself of that distinction) full of British humour and witty satire. I could identify with Her Majesty's obsession: When reading a good book, I frequently have put off housework and even ...   Read More

Cloggie Downunder

uncommonly funny!
The Uncommon Reader is a novella by novelist and playwright, Alan Bennett. The story starts with the Queen coming across the mobile library van parked near Buckingham Palace, where Norman, a young man from the kitchens, is choosing a book. After ...   Read More

Nicole

I agree with the Queen you can always find time to read
This was such an interesting little book to read because Bennett so deftly explores, through the Queen's newly acquired habit reading, the many ways that becoming involved in books can be absorbing and ultimately life changing. It is interesting too...   Read More

Velma

A Reader's Fairy Tale
This book has a lot of humor, intriguing ideas, and charm packed into a small package. I found it to be absolutely delightful! A reader's fairy tale with a lesson for the world. I finished it in just one day, but I will never forget it.

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Beyond the Book

Author and actor Alan Bennett was born in Armley in Leeds, Yorkshire in 1934. He attended Leeds Modern School and learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists during his National Service, during which he attended Cambridge University. After this, he applied for a scholarship to Oxford University, from which he graduated with a first-class degree in History.

In 1960, after some time teaching and studying at Oxford, Bennett, along with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook, ...

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