It was only a matter of time; I have caught one of the many bugs going around the school where I teach, and after practically losing my voice yesterday, I decided I needed to take a sick day and try to get better. This decision was quickly followed by the realization that East of Eden was NOT what the doctor ordered. It's a great novel, but it's definitely not something to read when you're feeling crummy.
Luckily for me, however, Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader was waiting for me at the library. I had read about it on several blogs, and it turns out that it was the perfect book to read!
I read The Uncommon Reader in one night, and it was just lovely. It is always nice to recognize pieces of yourself in characters that you read about, and I think half the book will end up in my quotations notebook! It is a very gentle tale of how the Queen of England's life is turned upside down by a single visit to a travelling library. She wasn't much of a reader before, but she quickly falls in love with books, reading, and the new world that books open up for her. The people around her become more and more perplexed and exasperated, and when the Queen, inspired by all the wonderful things she has been reading, decides to try writing herself, very interesting and unexpected things happen!
Alan Bennett manages to poke fun at many people's preconceived notion of what books are for, how books should be read, and what is and isn't appropriate dinner conversation (i.e. books are not appropriate dinner conversation). As the Queen dives deeper and deeper into her lists of books, her staff and advisers, with the exception of the faithful Norman, become more and more perturbed by the changes that are taking place in "Ma'am." Many even consider that the Queen is probably sinking into senility (which presents a whole different problem than the book obsession since Alzheimer's is so singularly common), which is highly ironic given the fact that the Queen finds herself to be more mentally vivacious than she has been in a very long time. Bennett shows how powerful the reading experience can be and shows, as the Queen herself says, that reading is often a "tenderising" undertaking. The Queen herself changes not only her ideas and understanding of her surroundings because of what she reads; she starts to see and notice things in people that she never would have been aware of before.
Part of what is so compelling about Bennett's story for me is the presence of another voracious, compulsive reader. I love that the Queen was willing to try anything, and her reading horizons were broadened immensely. I don't necessarily agree with her philosophy of always finishing a book once having started it, but I do think it is a wise reader (which the Queen very much is) who is willing to give an author a second chance because she knows that reading exercises the brain and makes it stronger. I also appreciate that the Queen realizes that reading should be an interactive experience; I believe that we get the most out of what we read if we respond to it and interact with it in some way both while we read and after we are done. Again, it is a wise reader who reads with a pen or pencil or highlighter in hand because she knows that there are treasures to be mined as she reads. The Uncommon Reader demonstrates that there is so much more to reading than entertainment; entertainment is all well and good, but reading and writing at their best can challenge us and make us think in ways that we wouldn't have otherwise and often can literally change our lives.
One thing I found myself wondering over and over as I read was what the real Queen's response was to this book. Was this book inspired by something particular? As an American, I will admit that I know very little about the ins and outs of the English monarchy, so I was left wondering about what Bennett was trying to achieve with the book. Was his purpose simply a gentle satire of people in general, or was he pointing out and satirizing something specific to the monarchy? Again, I very much felt my non-Englishness and the fact that I wasn't really in the know.
Part of the brilliance of Bennett's story, however, lies in the fact that you don't have to be English to appreciate the Queen's discovery of books. In fact, I would venture that the Queen is not an uncommon reader simply because she is the Queen; she is an uncommon reader because of what and how she reads. And that, my friends, is what makes The Uncommon Reader so appealing!